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.
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.
But with the US military surge scheduled to end this summer, followed by a slow reduction in US forces—and with other ISAF nations eyeing the exit after a decade of war—the US-led alliance is running out of time to win the border fight and, by extension, the entire conflict. Sharana and the Margah outpost might be enjoying a shift in resources toward the border, but ISAF's total manpower has peaked. If the coalition can’t secure the border with the resources on hand, it probably can’t secure the border at all.
‘Our end-state is to deny the enemy sanctuary,’ says US Army Capt. Chris Tanner. It was April 3 at the Margah outpost, rebuilt and heavily reinforced since the October assault demolished many of its defenses. Tanner was briefing a roomful of soldiers from the Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment on the ISAF's plan to begin locking down the border.
It’s a difficult task. In northern Bermel district, a border crossing just ten minutes by helicopter from the Margah outpost, the local residents hadn’t seen a coalition soldier in three years, Tanner says. Before Fox Company and other alliance troops could hope to begin regular patrols in the district's northern sector, they must first get reacquainted with the area themselves.
For Fox Company, that meant one thing: a recon. On April 4, two platoons from the storied unit—which was established during World War II and fought in many of the European theater's major American battles—would drop into northern Bermel aboard Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and spend 24 hours registering GPS coordinates, observing patterns of life and noting any suspected Taliban positions.
They would also fire artillery at an uninhabited mountaintop as a show of force, meant to impress upon the inhabitants the seriousness of ISAF's intent.
The platoons packed enormous firepower. In addition to their own weapons, they enjoyed nearly continuous air cover by a succession of helicopters, jet fighters and unmanned drone aircraft. Artillery from no fewer than three bases zeroed in on their location.
Even so, Tanner warned his soldiers ahead of time to expect the worst. ‘There are a lot of bad dudes kicking around this area,’ he assured them. Fox Company would be landing on the mountain peaks, as opposed to the valleys where the people live. That would help ensure the civilians' safety, but at the cost of the Americans’ security. ‘There ain't nobody around us, so they can shoot at us all day,’ Tanner says.
That wasn't what happened—not quite. The residents of northern Bermel, or at least their Taliban guests, fired only sporadically at Fox Company's positions, missing every time. But the shooters' message was clear. ISAF isn’t welcome around northern Bermel’s border crossing, and any attempt to establish a sustained ISAF presence will be met with violence.
Perhaps not violence on the scale of the October assault on the Margah outpost, but certainly sufficient to delay the coalition—and possibly adequate to ‘run out the clock’ until the alliance exhausts its will to fight.
Operations similar to Fox Company's were kicking off across eastern Paktika in the spring of 2011, as ISAF tried, again, to gain control of the Afghan border region. But the alliance knows that long-term border security must be the responsibility of the Afghan government.
That means two things: an Afghan civil government presence in isolated tribally-dominated districts that have been essentially self-governing for many years; plus, self-sufficient Afghan army and police units capable of conducting patrols without significant foreign assistance.
On both fronts, progress has been slow or nonexistent. With the Afghan central government focused on fortifying Kabul, there are few resources left over for the border provinces. ‘You have a fledgling district government in varying stages of growth…and a provincial government in its own stages of development,’ says US Army Maj. Steve Battle, a 101st Airborne officer assigned to oversee development projects.
Equally important to building Afghan government capacity is encouraging ‘popular trust’ in the government, Battle adds. ‘Our primary objective is to connect the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with the populace,’ he says. ‘The populace acts in accordance with that connection.’
Agricultural projects and conflict mediation can help build that trust, provided the government has the capacity to follow through on such initiatives. Capacity and trust-building both require access—and that's one of the biggest obstacles Battle and the Afghan government face in Paktika. In short, there are no roads.
To be more precise, there are just 150 miles of paved roads in the entire province, population half a million—and those roads are all concentrated in the relatively flat west. The mountainous east, the border region, is all but unpaved. ISAF has several, mostly US-funded, projects underway to change that.
‘Our road network has operational and strategic implications,’ Battle says. Operational, because roads help ISAF forces move quickly around Paktika to respond to border infiltrations. Strategic, because improved transportation could open up previously closed areas to an Afghan government presence.
The Taliban knows this. And for every road project ISAF launches, the insurgency plots a disruptive attack. An effort to connect east and west Paktika via a steep, paved mountain road stalled three years ago after the Taliban attacked the contractor.
And just last month, Taliban suicide bombers assaulted a road contractor in eastern Paktika, killing around 20 laborers. Battle says he doesn't know yet how the recent attack will affect the alliance's current road-building effort. In any event, it certainly won't accelerate road construction.
As for Afghan security forces—they too, are in a fledgling state in much of Paktika. The Afghan troops attached to Fox Company during the October assault on the Margah outpost contributed little to the battle. If anything, they actually helped the assailants by accidentally firing on US troops retreating from an overrun observation post.
Fox Company received a fresh attachment of Afghan National Army troops in March and promptly began sending them out on patrols alongside US forces. The initial results were discouraging.
During the assault into northern Bermel, the Americans fired mortars as a show of force, meant to intimidate any Taliban in the valley below. The 60-millimetre mortar rounds exploded on a nearby mountaintop with an impressive cracking sound.
The Afghans tagging along decided to join the show of force with their brand-new rocket launcher. An Afghan soldier took aim, pulled the trigger—and nothing happened. Embarrassed by his malfunctioning launcher, the young soldier turned toward his American escorts, inadvertently aiming the rocket directly at them.
US troops dove for cover as Tanner ordered the Afghan to remove the rocket from the launcher. Later, an American soldier scolded the Afghans for their lack of discipline. ‘I don't know what's going to happen after we leave,’ the soldier sighed.