War in Afghanistan: A Tour of HELL

War in Afghanistan: a tour of hell
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 09/08/2008

For all the money, technology and military might America can throw at the Taliban, conditions at the US Army’s most attacked outpost in Afghanistan are reminiscent of the First World War trenches. Report by Stuart Webb

Just after dawn at Forward Operating Base Salerno, the Chinooks, Apaches and Black Hawks are starting their engines. Amid the building roar of the helicopters, the camp comes alive. In this part of eastern Afghanistan, Salerno provides the gateway to a string of isolated American military outposts along the frontier with Pakistan. No one is in a hurry to board the helicopter destined for Combat Outpost Margha. As the ground slips away, the tail-gunner takes up position on the Chinook’s open ramp and the banter between the men evaporates. The soldiers, 18 of them, have a grim resignation about them now.

Among US forces in Afghanistan, Margha has a formidable reputation, and is the most attacked combat outpost in Paktika province. Located at the top of a mountain on the lawless, porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is one of the farthest flung and most vulnerable outposts in America’s global war against terrorism.

Once these troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade are dropped here they are effectively cut off from the outside world. Most are young, in their late teens and early twenties. With every pocket and pouch stuffed with ammunition, and chests crossed with grenade belts, they already look battle-hardened. Some were only 12 years old when the Twin Towers came down in 2001 – a stark reminder of how long the war has been going on.

The mountains seem to go on for ever. Under their gaze have passed some of the greatest warriors and empires in history: from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the British and Soviet armies. These men are just the latest to pass through.

As we skim the ground, the gunners – fingers on triggers – scan the trees and boulders that flash past. The view is beautiful, yet across this frontier the Taliban come and go freely, mounting attacks, resupplying and regenerating. Looking down at the endless landscape, it seems impossible that all the gaps in this border could ever be plugged. Many commanders in both Britain and America accept that the war cannot be won by military means alone. From up here, you can see why. The most powerful military capabilities in the world count for nothing in Paktika. For all the technology, money and might, the young men in this helicopter are at the sharp end of an old-fashioned war.

A puff of white smoke from a signal flare on the ground guides us in. A pyramid-shaped mountain looms into view – nothing but steep sides and sharp ridges. Army engineers have somehow managed to carve a tiny shoulder for a landing spot and the Chinook hovers for some time to line up. We sit uncomfortably, suspended and exposed, while a Black Hawk swirls around to provide cover. Finally, the ramp lowers and the men pile off, the speed of their exit matched by the speed of the 18 men getting on. Hours before our arrival, Margha had been hit by six Taliban-fired rockets. On this occasion, no one had been hurt.

The soldiers head immediately for cover. Margha is looked down on by a series of towering ridges. The main ridge forms the border with Pakistan and it is from here that most of the frequent rocket and mortar attacks come: the soldiers call it Rocket Ridge. The troops at Margha – always men – come under a serious rocket and mortar attack from the Taliban at least once a week. But this is a significant improvement. The base at the top of the hill is the ‘new’ Margha, only a couple of months old – it used to be located down the hill, next to the village from which it takes its name, and was attacked constantly.

Specialist Max Dorsa from California is on his first tour and had a miraculous escape at the old camp when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through the back of the guard tower he was in, but failed to explode: ‘I never thought it would be as bad as this,’ he says. Pte Jason Stewart has equally bad memories: ‘We were taking rocket fire every day; they just looked down and shot at us from the hill above. It was insane.’ The position became untenable and Combat Outpost Margha was relocated. It is still perilously exposed but the ridges, while within range, are now just over half a mile away.

It is a situation the Americans have to live with: in Afghanistan, they are trying to put into practice the hard lessons learnt in Iraq. General David Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, has rewritten the American military’s manual on counter-insurgency. Before, the US Army trained to fight wars using overwhelming fire power, but in this unconventional conflict against suicide bombers, hit-and-run attacks and roadside bombs, the old philosophy simply wasn’t working.

Under Petraeus, the emphasis now is less on engaging with guns and more on engaging with diplomacy – of having increased contact with the locals in order to win over hearts and minds. The strategy has been to move out of huge ‘super bases’ and instead install the troops in smaller camps closer to the Afghan people. By showing a highly visible presence and aiding the communities the Americans hope to offer an alternative to supporting the Taliban. But the practice is leaving the Americans more vulnerable than ever.

The platoon commander, 24-year-old Lieut Joe Corsi, tries to build up trust and confidence with the local population by inviting village elders to Margha once a week for a meeting. The local leaders ask for help ranging from drilling wells to power generation, pleas that Corsi will pass on to his commanders at Camp Salerno. In return, Corsi asks if they have seen anything suspicious or any outsiders in their villages.
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But Corsi is hampered in what he can do – with only 18 soldiers, he cannot allow his men to patrol the vicinity. There are several reconstruction projects ongoing, but the Americans are largely unable to protect them. All Corsi can do is radio headquarters and ask for air support if he hears of an attack. But in such mountainous terrain reports of incidents can take hours to filter through, by which time the Taliban are long gone.

And with military helicopters and jets stretched to the limit on other operations, support is not guaranteed. Margha is resupplied by private contractors using civilian aircraft. Supplies are parachuted into the base by light aircraft or dropped off by a Ukrainian crew using an old Russian helicopter, flying at high altitude to avoid enemy fire.

The ease of the Taliban’s movement leads many of the soldiers at Margha to believe the Pakistani military are at best turning a blind eye, and at worst actively assisting the insurgents. The Pakistan government’s remit has never extended much into its tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan and there is a reluctance to get involved. Pakistan also played a key role in supporting the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and it is believed that sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence services remain sympathetic.

The relationship between the Pakistani and American military along the border is limited and strained. For Sgt Daniel Cowden it is a frustrating situation. ‘The worst thing is that they can seek refuge in Pakistan; the Pakistan military really don’t do anything so they can come and go real easy. They can fire at us from the ridge and just go straight back into Pakistan.’
A tail-gunner on the lookout for insurgents from the ramp of the Chinook

Often, the Taliban shoot from within Pakistan itself. The US soldiers have to get permission from Camp Salerno to return fire across the border – and permission is not guaranteed, in part out of concern that Pakistani civilians could be hit.

The stress of facing repeated bombardment and not being able to fight back makes the soldiers at Margha feel like sitting ducks. Pte Greg Gardiner is in charge of the heavy mortar with which, in theory, they can return fire. ‘We take all these rockets and mortars, then we get our big gun ready and then we just have to stand around,’ he says.

American troops came to Afghanistan after 9/11 with the intention of defeating al-Qa’eda and ousting the Taliban under Operation Enduring Freedom. After initial success, their attention was diverted by Iraq, and the problems of Afghanistan have returned. Warlords and drug barons hold sway over large parts of the country, corruption in government is endemic, and the Taliban have become a resurgent force. The number of insurgent attacks has increased 300 per cent since September 2006.

Western intelligence agencies believe a future terrorist attack on Britain or America is still likely to have its origins in these borderlands. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, says he would refocus America’s attention on Afghanistan and take a much tougher line with Pakistan. He has promised extra troops and funding. But more force and more money could merely provide more cannon fodder for the Taliban unless resources are used in a much more targeted and sophisticated way.

Ask the men at Margha about this and they will usually say, ‘Sir, that’s way above my pay grade.’ Some, like 21-year-old sniper Danny Miller, joined up to be part of the ‘war on terror’. ‘A big motivational factor for joining the army was September 11,’ he says, although he does sometimes wonder how much can be achieved at Margha. ‘I’m sure everybody thinks it. Hey, it sucks but you just put it behind you and get the job done.’

Up on the hill, it is a lonely and isolating experience. The outpost is tiny: about half the size of a football pitch. To help protect them from incoming fire, the men live in shipping containers surrounded by earthen blast walls and sandbags. The containers are connected by tunnels of wooden beams and walkways. The scene is reminiscent of the First World War trenches, the claustrophobic feel intensified by the sense of impending attack. Because of the constant threat, the men spend most of their day inside the containers. With summer temperatures topping 50C, conditions can be grim.

The men’s routine is one of constantly revolving guard duty in the camp’s three watchtowers. There are four to a tower, and they sleep in a shipping container underneath. At night they guard in pairs to keep each other awake. The senior NCOs and Corsi work the same 24-hour shift pattern in the radio room. There are no showers or laundry, just wet wipes for washing and ration packs to eat. The time crawls by. The men pass the long hours playing cards and video games, watching DVDs and listening to their iPods, and waiting for the next rocket attack.
Last month a massed attack by several hundred insurgents on a similar base in Kunar province to the north killed nine US soldiers and injured 15 in one day. The base had to be abandoned. Since the Taliban have regrouped, more of these isolated American camps are at risk of being picked off, though in general the situation remains a bloody, expensive stalemate.

The soldiers will stay at Margha for about a month, when the next Chinook will arrive to take them back to a forward operating base for two days’ break – just enough time to rest, take a shower and do their laundry, before they are sent out to one of the other remote combat outposts for another month of relentless guard duty. The men do 15-month tours in Afghanistan.

Many of the soldiers wear black wristbands bearing the names of friends who have been killed. At Margha it seems that everyone has lost someone close. Corsi wears two wristbands. One is for his good friend Cpl Jacob Lowell, who was travelling in a Humvee when the Taliban fired down from the hills; a bullet went through the roof. Corsi has had extra metal plates welded to the tops of all his Humvees.

The other wristband is for his commanding officer, Major Thomas Bostick. ‘I knew his wife and two daughters,’ Corsi says. ‘He was my mentor. It’s a way to celebrate his life, and it helps me just remember.’ The bands also help Corsi keep perspective. ‘When you start to think selfish thoughts, like how close you are to going home, you just look down at your arm and remember that some people aren’t able to go home.’

The Americans have lost more than 550 military personnel in Afghanistan since 2001. The British and American sectors are among the most dangerous areas to patrol in the country. US forces have the difficult mountain terrain and cross-border insurgents to deal with. The British in Helmand face threats both from an area that is a Taliban heartland and from warlords and drug barons whose fiefdoms thrive in the chaos of war. British military deaths in Afghanistan now stand at more than 100. The great majority of these have come since 2006 when the British moved into Helmand.

Margha’s platoon medic, 22-year-old Specialist Trevor Ramey from Florida, hopes more than anything that his skills won’t be needed again. It is only his first tour, but he is already a veteran. On his very first day in Afghanistan, at an outpost just north of Margha, he had a shocking reality check. He had just disembarked from the helicopter and put down his bags when he was called to treat an Afghan commander. ‘The round traced the top of his skull and exposed his brain. They brought him in and it just blew my mind. I wasn’t prepared for that in any way.’

Ramey’s best friend Juan Restrepo, a fellow medic, was killed during a fire fight in Kunar. They had trained together, shared a room and deployed together. ‘He was going to try and pull back another dead soldier. He took two AK-47 rounds to the neck. He was the only medic on the patrol, he couldn’t tell anyone how to treat him. He died on the Medivac bird. I’m not going to deny it, I cried.’ Ramey has lost five close friends during the tour. ‘That sticks with you. Being here, it changes you.’

In the middle of my eight-day visit, I prepare to visit the Afghan border police at the old Margha fort to see how conditions compare down in the valley. Even though it is little over a mile away Corsi’s men cannot leave the base and so cannot provide an escort. While I wait for the police to come and collect me the platoon sniper Danny Miller, 21, is instructed by Corsi to plot the exact range of points along my route so he can provide covering fire if I get into trouble. Miller has already had the Taliban in his sights – and pulled the trigger. ‘It’s unfortunate that it needs to be done,’ he says. ‘To me, when I look through the scope they are an enemy of the United States.’ He explains that the police base is at the limit of his range. ‘I can still hit someone at that range but it won’t be accurate. But in the bazaar [half a mile away], I’ll be able to drop the guy standing next to you.’

Within an hour of my return to the American base a policeman is kidnapped in the bazaar by three armed men and thrown into the boot of a car. In the radio room, Sgt Cowden does not rate his chances. ‘Being a policeman I think they’ll kill him, leave his body by the side of the road as an example not to work with the Americans.’

With the American military fighting simultaneous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is not uncommon for soldiers to be on their third or fourth tour of duty. Such long deployments and the stress of combat are taking a serious toll. The rates for suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among American soldiers are at record highs. An influential study estimated that one in five American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from post-traumatic stress.

Dr Ira Katz, the head of mental health services for Veterans Affairs – a government department that looks after the welfare of US war veterans – estimated recently that there were about 1,000 suicide attempts a month among war veterans, the highest number since records began.

The situation has got so bad that about 20,000 troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq have been prescribed antidepressants – 17 per cent of those currently serving in Afghanistan, and 12 per cent of those in Iraq. The drugs help the soldiers cope with the unimaginable stress – for an overstretched military, it helps keep them in the field.

Issuing drugs to armies is nothing new. Amphetamines were issued to various German, British, US and Japanese units during the Second World War to keep the men alert; prescribing amphetamines to American forces during Vietnam was widespread. But the wholesale issuing of antidepressants, sleeping pills and anxiety medicine to a military on active operations is a new and potentially shocking development. No one at Margha will talk about taking pills. Some feel they can’t in the macho atmosphere of the army; others are worried that by admitting to it they could hurt their chances of promotion.

During their 15-month tour the soldiers get two weeks’ leave. Ramey knows he has been affected by what he has seen – on his last return home his friends and family noticed changes in him, too. He came to Afghanistan in the hope of saving lives, but in the process he may have damaged his own. ‘I guess this place has messed with me, subconsciously,’ he says. ‘My friend slept over at my hotel with his girlfriend one night. I’d been drinking and passed out drunk and they said I was screaming in my sleep. I had a dream I was still here.’

Stuart Webb is a journalist for Channel 4 News

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