They attacked in a human wave, hundreds strong. It was October 30, 2010 in the town of Margah, in the remote province of Paktika along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Just months prior, the US Army had shifted about 50 fresh infantrymen into a tiny, neglected outpost outside Margah's main bazaar. The reinforcements, part of the Barack Obama administration's Afghanistan ‘surge,’ doubled the manpower at the outpost—and provoked a massive Taliban reprisal.
The army aimed to boost the outpost's ability to monitor and interdict insurgents and their supplies moving into Afghanistan from Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. Recognizing the danger the expanded outpost posed to their supply lines, in mid-October the Taliban began probing the Margah outpost with rocket and gun attacks. And on October 30, several hundred extremists massed for a full-scale assault.
But they didn’t succeed this time, and the assault ended in a lopsided tactical victory for the Americans. At least 92 Taliban died under bombardment from US machine guns, mortars, artillery, helicopters and jet fighters. Five Americans were wounded, none of whom died.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The attack highlighted the Taliban's continued ability to move large numbers of people and weapons across the border with Pakistan. But in failing to destroy the outpost in Margah, the Taliban also failed to reverse the US military's ongoing expansion into Paktika's border regions.
Still, the Taliban's failure doesn’t equal success for the Americans and their allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In Paktika and other border provinces, the Taliban travel along a large number of roads, trails and footpaths passing through official and unofficial border crossings nestled between imposing mountain peaks.
Halting insurgent border traffic will take far more than 50 extra troops—or, for that matter, the roughly 5,000 additional ISAF troops deployed across Paktika since last year. Sealing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border will require sustained security operations followed by a massive expansion of Afghan government infrastructure. ‘It’s a challenge,’ says US Army Col. Sean Jenkins, commander of forces in the province.
All wars are fought at three levels of increasing breadth: tactical, operational and strategic. With insurgents planting at least 1,300 Improvised Explosive Devices every month and ISAF forces controlling the sky, the Afghanistan war has become a tactical stalemate. At the strategic end of the spectrum, Kabul's latest effort to reintegrate insurgent combatants—thus paving a path to a political resolution of the conflict—has stalled. On the operational level, ISAF's inability to seal the porous border with Pakistan means insurgents possess safe havens and can sustain their resistance indefinitely.
Until it can control the border, ISAF stands no chance of resolving the Afghanistan war on its own terms, a point not lost on the alliance. ‘The border is our priority right now,’ Jenkins says at his sprawling base in western Paktika. Like so many ISAF outposts in Afghanistan's border regions, Forward Operating Base Sharana has doubled in size in the last year, and is now one of the biggest military facilities in the country.