Friction between Afghan forces hangs over remote post
January 1, 2012
GOWARDESH, Afghanistan — There is no need to imagine the aftermath of perhaps the worst attack on the Afghanistan Border Patrol in its young history. The Taliban captured the grim scene on video.
The film shows insurgents cheering among the bloodied corpses of 23 border patrol officers on July 5. Grinning fighters pose beside some of the bodies, clutching the hair of the dead and twisting their heads toward the camera.
The men were killed when some 150 insurgents overran a trio of border patrol outposts in northern Kunar province, three miles from Pakistan.
The militants abandoned the ruined outposts within hours. By then, the siege had inflamed the simmering distrust between the border patrol and the Afghanistan National Army in this turbulent region.
“There has not always been good communication,” said Nasirahmad Shbab, a border patrol sergeant. “We need to fight together so that Afghanistan will have a good military.”
Yet judging by the army’s reaction when the border patrol resumed occupying the three outposts last month, the alliance remains frayed. The tensions threaten to weaken the Afghan military in a province known as a primary gateway for militants crossing over from Pakistan.
“It hasn’t been easy trying to get them to work together,” said Sgt. Everardo Esquivel, 32, of La Grange, Texas, who belongs to the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment. The unit, based in northern Kunar, has mentored the border patrol and army in the area.
“But one way or another,” he said, “they’re going to have to get along to straighten this place out.”
The border patrol positions flank the Kunar River a mile below Observation Point Mace, an Afghan army outpost that sits at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet in the Hindu Kush mountains.
The U.S. Army turned Mace over to its Afghan counterpart in late 2010 as part of NATO’s ongoing security transition. Soldiers with the 2-27 recently spent three weeks at the observation point during a mission to rebuild one of the border patrol outposts in the Kunar River Valley.
They regarded the Afghan military and its ability to police the region with paternal fatalism as the U.S. prepares to end combat operations in 2014.
“Obviously, we’re trying to teach as much as we can while we’re here,” said 1st Sgt. John Stadtmueller, 41, of Peterson, Minn. “But it’s like preparing a child to go off to college. When they go, they’re on their own.
The observation point gives Afghan forces domain over a crucial swath of Kunar’s borderlands, with the army holding the high ground at Mace and the border patrol entrenched in the river valley. Despite their proximity, soldiers at Mace failed to aid border patrol officers during the ambush in July.
Apart from widening the intra-military rift, the raid deepened doubts about whether Afghan forces, organized only within the last decade, can subdue the insurgency on their own — doubts that may run strongest within their ranks.
“God willing, the enemy will not be too powerful and we will be able to defeat them,” said Lt. Bakdash Nazairzy, 22, whose Afghan army unit has occupied Mace since early November. “But after the Americans pull back from Afghanistan, it will be very difficult for us.”
The burden of policing the country’s eastern border has grown heavier as relations erode between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghan officials accuse Pakistan of aiding the Taliban-led insurgency and granting refuge to militants near the disputed Durand Line separating the two nations. Leaders on both sides trade charges over the recurring border skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani troops in the region.
In June, Afghan President Hamid Karzai claimed that Pakistan had fired hundreds of rockets into Kunar and neighboring Nangarhar province, killing dozens of people and forcing thousands to flee inland.
The friction intensified in November in the wake of a U.S. drone strike along the border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan responded by closing its two official crossings into Afghanistan.
A Pentagon review of the attack, while clearing U.S. forces of knowingly targeting the Pakistanis, found that the U.S. and Pakistan “cannot operate effectively on the border — or in other parts of our relationship — without addressing the fundamental trust still lacking between us.”
Shutting the border gates impedes legitimate traffic more so than insurgents, who favor countless unmarked crossings between the countries. One they frequently travel is a low-slung mountain pass visible from Observation Point Mace.
The route receives little snow, allowing fighters to enter Afghanistan year-round through a valley that connects to the Kunar River Valley. Once over the border they can drop south toward Asadabad, the provincial capital, then move west beyond Kunar into the larger cities of Jalalabad and Kabul.
In theory, at least, the observation point gives the Afghan military a chance to dam the flow of insurgents into the country’s interior.
“This is the most crucial piece of terrain in northern Kunar,” said Sgt. Stephen McElroy, 26, of Mount Vernon, Ill., with the 2-27. “Mace is what holds the whole area together.”
The outpost unfurls over roughly a quarter-mile on a rolling ridge line that falls toward the border to the east and the Kunar River to the west. The mountain vistas are striking. The living conditions are stark.
Afghan soldiers sleep in plywood huts bereft of electricity and heat. Each morning some of the men gather wood from the hillsides to build fires to boil water for tea and cook rice, beans and potatoes. Others escort donkeys down to the valley floor to load saddle bags with supplies.
As temperatures slip below freezing, mice and rats seek shelter in the huts. Insurgents harass the troops from a greater distance.
“They are shooting at us a lot,” said Sgt. Abdul Rahaman. “But we will not leave these positions. We will die here if we have to.”
Many stories have emerged to explain why no soldiers left Mace as border patrol officers were dying at the hands of militants in July.
Among the accounts: The army unit stationed at the outpost dozed through the attack; a corrupt commander stopped his troops from aiding the border patrol; mortars and grenades fired by insurgents prevented soldiers from responding to the ambush.
The variations, while creating a haze around the day’s events, illuminate the chasm dividing the army and border patrol.
The Afghan army has stationed about 100 troops at Mace. Half as many border patrol officers rotate among the three valley outposts and a fourth that U.S. troops built for them last month a quarter-mile down the slope from Mace.
The soldiers’ words implied a spirit of solidarity when the border patrol returned to the area.
“Those are our brothers,” said Sgt. Abdul Khamail. “We try to have good coordination and plan with each other.”
But their actions revealed pettiness.
U.S. helicopters had delivered pallets to Mace that held hundreds of bottles of water. One afternoon, a border patrol officer walked up to the outpost to ask the Afghan unit for a couple of 12-bottle packages.
Afghan soldiers pulled concertina wire across the entry gate as he approached. Voices were raised. They refused his request.
Winter has tended to impose a relative calm on Afghanistan as insurgents hibernate during the cold months. The season gives the Afghan forces in northern Kunar scant time to mesh before the start of the so-called fighting season in the spring.
“Once it starts warming up, they’re going to get tested,” said Esquivel with the 2-27, “and it’s probably not going to be pretty if they’re not working together.”
They may find motivation in their mutual hatred of the country next door. Muhammad Sarwar, a first sergeant with the army unit at Mace, described Pakistan as “the enemy of all Afghanistan.”
“They are making jihad against us,” he said. “They send insurgents here to destroy our people.”
Shbab, the border patrol sergeant, has heard that the army commander who allegedly barred his soldiers from intervening during this summer’s siege was arrested and jailed. He offered a hopeful forecast in which Afghan forces unite against a common adversary.
“Pakistan is the biggest problem for every soldier, every Afghan,” he said. “We have to fight them and not ourselves.”
Afghan troops welcomed the brief return of U.S. soldiers to Mace in mid-November. Insurgents offered their own greeting on Thanksgiving.
An estimated three dozen fighters concealed behind ridge lines to the north, west and south of the outpost opened fire with mortars, .50-caliber machine guns and AK-47s.
U.S. soldiers answered in kind and called in airstrikes. Fleeting clouds of gray smoke rose over the mountains as fighter jets battered enemy positions with 2,000-pound bombs.
The battle lasted three hours. A handful of insurgents were killed; no U.S. soldiers were wounded.
Afghan troops stood and watched, frustrated and irrelevant.
Lacking artillery that could reach enemy positions, and with the fledgling Afghan air force unable to provide support, their contribution was limited to firing two rounds from a recoilless rifle.
The only damage inflicted might have been to their pride as the shells fell short of the intended targets.
“It is very hard to fight without a good air force and bigger weapons,” Sarwar said. “That is why when the coalition forces leave, we could have trouble.”
The Afghan air force consists of fewer than 40 aircraft and, with rare exceptions, restricts its missions to transporting personnel and supplies.
The absence of air power requires Sarwar and his men to defend Mace with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. The border patrol units rely on similar weaponry.
Insurgents realize that a different combat geometry applies without U.S. aircraft and infantry in the vicinity. They exploited the conditions in July when they stormed the border patrol positions.
Afghan soldiers and border patrol officers display a bleak courage when discussing the possibility of a repeat assault.
“We are not afraid,” Sarwar said, “but it is harder for us to protect our positions. The insurgents can shoot at us from not as far.” He tugged at the brim of his green camouflage baseball cap. “We will do our best.”
Shbab spoke of a military unprepared to safeguard northern Kunar.
“We need more help from coalition forces,” he said. “We need more organization and recruiting. We will try to be ready when the insurgents come.”
U.S. soldiers departing Mace last month considered the anxiety natural for a military younger than the 10-year war against the insurgency.
“They just need to gain experience,” said Sgt. Curt Majerus, 31, of Port Washington, Wis. “If they use the tools we’ve tried to give them, they can hold their ground.”
Some apparently preferred to walk away. Days after the U.S. soldiers left, they received word that border patrol officers had begun to desert their posts.
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