An elusive war – December and January in Afghanistan
In the history of embeds, this one has been pretty unremarkable so far. I kicked things off in Dubai with an impulse purchase of a Canon 5D Mark II. Stills and video ! ASA 6400 ! 20 MB files ! It seemed like a great idea until I dropped it in the mud on a patrol. So much for the resale value.
After getting to Bagram Air Base, it took a while until I was able to test out the new gear. We had a four-day wait due to rain, which delayed or cancelled flights and gave me plenty of time to indulge in the ice cream bar at the dining hall. On day five I got a late-night flight to Jalalabad, where I received a briefing about my embed area and made plans to get further north. Finally, a week after my embed had officially begun, I took a 20 minute ride on a Chinook helicopter and arrived to Foward Operating Base Bostick, located in Kunar Province about 10 miles from the Pakistan border.
The view from the base is stunning. Snow capped mountains to the east mark the border with Pakistan, the Kunar River runs through the valley, and at night the stars in the Milky Way seem close enough to touch. This being Christmas, there was a candle-lit church service in the chapel on the 24th, followed on Christmas Day by caroling and hot chocolate. The war seemed pretty far away.
Even though the base at Bostick hasn’t been attacked recently, the area isn’t exactly safe. The only road leading up the Kunar Valley is a dirt track, hardly big enough for a humvee in places, and during my stay two local trucks were stopped and burned, one driver was killed and another kidnapped. Whether this was insurgent related or the work of criminal gangs wasn’t immediately known, but it did send a strong message to other drivers who were bringing goods into the valley.
The area of my embed extends from Bostick up to a couple of small combat outposts in Nuristan Province, and January 5th, after two weeks at FOB Bostick, I finally got the helicopter up to Combat Outpost Lowell. Lowell has the dubious honor of being one of the most heavily attacked US military bases in Afghanistan. It is located in a strategic position at the intersection of two valleys, and as such, is an important checkpoint for deterring insurgent movement north to south and east to west. It unfortunately also sits in a natural bowl, surrounded on all sides by tree covered hills, which make excellent cover for the local fighers to fire down from with their AK-47′s, RPG’s, mortars and so on.
Generally speaking, the further you get from headquarters, the more austere the living conditions become, and COP Lowell is no exception. The Afghan dust has turned into mud with recent rains, and the paths between buildings are a quagmire deep enough to ensure that nobody walks around with clean boots. The ice cream bar is gone, along with gatorade, Cokes and Red Bulls. No PX if you run out of cigarettes and no cable TV. But there’s no shortage of hospitality, and I’ve been given my own room complete with a heater and a desk. It could be much worse.
Journalists are no strangers to the soldiers of Apache Troop at Lowell. The New York Times was here in November and as the men have been telling me, at the time there was plenty of fighting. They point out the bald spots on the surrounding hills where fighter jets dropped 500 pound bombs during firefights, the holes in the outhouse froma Dushka anti-aircraft machine gun, and mention the laundry boy who lost an arm when an RPG round came through the roof of a nearby building.
But this week it’s been quiet. So today we walked up to the nearby village of Kamu for a weekly meeting with the local shura, or tribal council. Captain Frank Hooker, Apache troop commander, along with members of the Afghan Army and US Marines, sat down with three men from the shura to discuss current issues and future projects. Sitting outside in a circle of chairs, the men talked in turn about local security, food shipments, construction projects and other topics. The atmosphere was cordial, and after tea was served, we all gathered together for a group photo and shook hands.
We walked back to the base and I went up to my room to file a few pictures. As I started writing this story someone came running up the stairs shouting “contact” and all the soldiers rushed to their fighting positions. It turned out to be a false alarm, but I’m sure it won’t be the last time they get the call.