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Reporter's Notebook

Rocket strike on Afghanistan base: Coincidence?

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ALTIMUR, Afghanistan — Only hours after the world learned that U.S. operatives killed Osama bin Laden, something happened at this outpost in eastern Afghanistan for the first time in almost a year: a rocket strike.

A lone projectile landed inside the compound Monday but caused no injuries or damage. Yet, given the timing — news of bin Laden’s death had spread across Afghanistan earlier in the day — it was natural to wonder whether enemy forces were sending a reminder the war is not over.

Nestled at 7,700 feet in a mountain valley 50 miles south of Kabul, FOB Altimur has, since October, been home to the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. The previous rocket attack occurred in July while the 1st Squadron, 91st Calvary was stationed here.

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Capt. Westley Lafitte of the 2nd Battalion called the strike “definitely coincidental.”

“We had other intelligence that showed it wasn’t tied to what happened to him,” he said.

— Martin Kuz

A clean base is a happy base

War is a messy business. But not even Monday’s rocket attack could blemish Altimur’s reputation as “the cleanest FOB in Afghanistan.”

The unofficial title, inherited from the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry, seems very much deserved. If Martha Stewart ever deploys, this is where she’d want to stay.

With its smooth stone pathways, rows of tents that appear to have been aligned by GPS and bathrooms as clean as any this side of the Four Seasons, Altimur could pass for a suburban subdivision — provided the neighbors don’t mind 20-foot walls topped with razor wire.

“We do take pride in having a base that looks good,” said Sgt. Jackie McGowen, part of the mayor cell. He ascribed the FOB’s sparkling reputation to the two dozen Afghans who handle many of the cleaning chores and a devotion to tidiness among the soldiers.

“It’s home for us,” he said. “We don’t want to see garbage everywhere.”

According to Army Chaplain (Capt.) Wallace Jackson, keeping the base as spotless as possible might have a positive psychological effect. “I think cleanliness brings you a sense of calmness,” he said. Not to mention closer to godliness.

And that’s a good thing.

— Martin Kuz

Debate over bin Laden

Afghanistan is no stranger to conspiracy theories. In late 2009, locals in one northern province reported hearing helicopters overhead during the night.

Immediately, the story was splashed across Afghan newspapers and televisions in Kabul. It went something like this: Foreign (coalition) helicopters were flying Taliban militants into peaceful northern provinces to justify prolonging the U.S.-led war in their country.

While the idea that coalition forces would collude with the Taliban was laughed at by everyone at the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghans ate it up.

For weeks, Afghan reporters at press conferences at ISAF headquarters peppered spokesmen with questions about why they were lying to the Afghan people about ISAF’s secret backing of Taliban fighters.

On Wednesday, I heard another off-the-wall conspiracy theory. This one, though, came from an Army master sergeant I’d met when I was still a soldier myself. I ran into him on the boardwalk at Kandahar Airfield.

Standing on the worn planks of this desert homage to Western society, he confided that he doesn’t think Navy SEALs got Osama bin Laden.

It was late when he explained his hypothesis, and I’m sure my brain already has lost some of the finer points, but what I remember is this: The operation was a fabrication meant to make CIA director and Defense Secretary-to-be Leon Panetta look good and possibly provide a reason to withdraw large numbers of U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning this summer.

“Why now?” he asked. “I’m not usually a conspiracy theory type of guy,” he told me, and I’ve known him a long time — he’s steady.

And he was quick to say he’s no “birther.”

But the quick disposal of bin Laden’s body and the Obama administration’s hesitance to release a photo, in his mind, point to one conclusion: Bin Laden wasn’t killed in that raid.

I should note that I didn’t share his belief, but with the administration backing down from its earlier promise of a picture, well, it has me thinking.

After the awful pictures released from Abu Ghraib and the recent images of Afghans who were slain by a rogue “kill team,” what is stopping President Barack Obama from giving us one last look at the man Americans were told was the single most dangerous threat to our national security?

— Matt Millham

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