Fort Bragg soldiers stand guard at base near ancient Afghan fortress
Soldiers from Security Force Assistance Team 'Strike 1,' Cross Functional Team Warrior, 10th Mountain Division, overlook the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2013, during an Afghan staff ride during which the assistance team their Afghan National Army counterparts ventured to the Bala Hissar fortress.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Camp Bala Hissar is one of the smallest U.S. Army outposts left in Afghanistan. But it has a big mission.
The camp, named after the fifth-century fortress that overlooks it, is home to a small group of soldiers, including a platoon from the 82nd Airborne Division.
The soldiers are there to protect surveillance equipment that keeps watch over U.S. forces throughout the Afghan capital city. They also serve as a quick-reaction force should Kabul-based troops come under attack.
It's a unique base with a unique mission. The camp, and the ruins of the fortress, are within a larger Afghan National Army camp.
The Fort Bragg paratroopers live alongside soldiers from the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of the Georgia National Guard.
The latter provides security, maintenance and other life support needs for the paratroopers.
Camp Bala Hissar has virtually no civilian contractors, officials said, save for three men who help maintain the surveillance blimp housed at the camp.
Water is delivered to the base. Soldiers cook and clean on their own.
But to the soldiers who live there, it's home sweet home.
"We do like it here," said 1st Lt. Thomas Boehm, leader of 3rd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. "The quality of life is just better."
Boehm and Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Conway said the base is surrounded by a densely populated part of southwest Kabul. But within the concrete walls, it is easy to forget the camp is in the capital city, they said.
That is, until the sounds leak in.
"You hear the sounds of the city," Boehm said. "The people, the horns. ..."
The soldiers stay on high alert, Boehm said, with someone monitoring a control center 24/7. The soldiers pass the time with battle drills, training and some downtime - punctuated by bouts of Risk and other games.
"It hasn't been exciting, but we've been busy," Boehm said. "We could have gotten complacent, but we've stayed alert."
The soldiers frequently go on missions into the city, familiarizing themselves with areas where they may have to respond.
"It's not the most glamorous mission," Conway said. "But that's not a complaint."
Bala Hissar translates to "High Castle." The fortress has played an important part in Afghan history.
It once housed kings and, later, was the site of fighting through the country's war-laden history.
Civil wars as well as battles against British and Soviet Union troops have been waged at the fortress, now reduced to ruins.
Standing at Bala Hissar's highest point, Afghan Army Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmad Noori looks out over the city and a small waterway he jokingly calls the "Mediterranean Sea of Kabul" as he explains the importance of the ruins.
Bala Hissar itself is dotted with Russian armored vehicles and decades-old destroyed military equipment. The remnants of a great wall move north toward the city center from the fortress.
Through a translator, Noori explained how Afghans massacred British forces in the 1800s, leaving only one man and a horse to tell his commanders of the attack.
In more recent decades, Noori said, some of his men fought the Russians at the fortress or served as part of the Northern Alliance when they camped at the site during the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"It's historically very important," Noori said.
Bala Hissar is symbolic of success and failure of past wars in Afghanistan, making it a tempting target for the Taliban, he said.
There are threats almost daily, Noori said, with several attacks attempted in recent weeks.
Noori said his soldiers have close ties with their American counterparts. They play volleyball together and are frequent visitors.
"There's not an Afghan force and American force," he said. "Just a force."
During a tour of the camp and the ruins, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, deputy commanding general for support of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said Bala Hissar is the perfect contrast of the contradictions of Afghanistan.
On one hand, it is a modern military base with sophisticated equipment. On the other, it has a history of war and conflict.
Colt said Camp Bala Hissar would be one of the last bases troops would leave.
"We want to hold this to the very end," he said.