FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — The war didn’t pause for a VIP visit.
As the Army’s top enlisted soldier stood on the base’s gravel helipad an explosion shook the ground. U.S. soldiers were mounting an operation in a nearby village, targeting an insurgent accused of emplacing roadside bombs.
It’s a sound as familiar in this violent corner of Kandahar province as it is alien in Washington, where the war has fallen off the front pages and is barely mentioned in the presidential campaign, even as soldiers keep dying.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler was at FOB Zangabad, as part of a tour of Afghanistan, to bring messages from the soldiers’ wounded comrades he had visited at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The base lies in Panjwai district near the rust red dunes of the Registan Desert and long a hotspot for insurgent activity. Soldiers at FOB Zangabad have experienced heavy fighting. Many of their comrades have gone home amputees.
In the eyes of many Americans the war is winding down, the end in sight. Yet violence has not abated; as of Thursday, 349 international troops have died in Afghanistan this year, according to iCasualties.org. The insurgency is still entrenched and it’s in places like Zangabad where troops know only too well that the fighting is far from over.
“There’s still a war going on and unfortunately there are still soldiers dying and we can’t lose sight of that,” Chandler said.
Chandler faced some blunt questions from the battle-tested Zangabad troops, most of whom are with the 3rd Stryker Bridgade, 2nd Infantry Division. They not only face insurgent bombs outside of their base, but are wary of their Afghan counterparts on base as a trend of so-called green on blue attacks, in which Afghan troops have turned their weapons on their international partners, continues.
“With all the green on blues, why are we still doing joint patrols (with Afghan troops)?” one soldier asked.
“I would assume we are still doing it because that’s what command tells you,” Chandler said. “What should we do?”
“Not patrol with the Afghanis (sic),” the soldier said.
As the Army’s top enlisted soldiers, matters of morale are at the heart of Chandler’s job and nothing has been more deflating to troops than the prospect of being shot in the back by their supposed allies.
Another Zangabad soldier voiced concerns the attacks were coming on orders from up high.
“Is Big Army doing any investigation to see if this is deliberate within the (Afghan National Army) command?” he said.
Chandler acknowledged the attacks are a dire threat and said the Pentagon has been sending additional intelligence and criminal investigation experts to Afghanistan to help stop the attacks. With international combat troops set to leave at the end of 2014, giving way to a smaller advisory force, trust between the coalition and the Afghan security forces is crucial.
“Overall there is a sense of a lack of trust, but you’ve got to rebuild that relationship and I have a lot of confidence in these guys,” Chandler said.
As troops keep fighting in a war fewer and fewer Americans support or even pay attention to, Chandler faces the difficult task of convincing his soldiers their sacrifice is meaningful in an 11-year-old fight with an uncertain outcome. But he points to the lack of interest as proof the war is succeeding, that things are going well enough for Americans to ignore Afghanistan.
“People (in America) have other things on their minds and I attribute that to the incredible job these guys are doing,” he said.
As the sun hung low over Kandahar’s high desert mountains and Chandler waited near the Kandahar Airfield runway for his flight back to Kabul, two Blackhawk helicopters with the red cross medevac insignia swooped low. Onboard, in all likelihood, was another injured GI in a war most Americans have long ago tuned out.