Sunday, January 23, 2011

Where the rubber meets the road: on to FOB Kushamond

By: Vincent J. Curtis

Date: 3 Dec 10

Dateline: Forward Operating Base Kushamond, Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Kushamond, in the Dila District of Paktika province, is where the rubber meets the road in this war.  This FOB is rocketed regularly by the Taliban, and is located in an area which the Taliban exert a strong control.  US/ANA forces are only able to contest a portion of Dila district, the entire western area of the district is entirely uninfluenced by US/ANA.

FOB Kushamond lies about 45 minutes helicopter ride away to the south west from the main base at FOB Sharana.  The UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters fly low enough for a passenger to observe individual people and animals on the ground, but high enough to get a wide view of the countryside.  In most places the countryside is relatively flat and is crisscrossed with wadis, river beds that are dry or frozen over at this time of year.  In some places, rock formations that look like stacks of dinner plates pierce the surface at a steep angle.  There are also miles long rows of craters that appear frequently.  These are supposed to be a natural geological feature, and were not created by artillery shelling.

The broad valley is littered with small villages, and scores of mud walled forts dot the landscape.  There are numerous rectangular walled forts, complete with turrets, in the Beau Geste style, scattered about..  These are probably leftovers from the British occupation of the 19th century and maybe also the Russian of the 1980s.  An individual country dwelling here is called a qualat, and consists of multiroomed living quarters for the people and a large enclosure for the animals.  The enclosing barrier is a wall made of mud, and the effect from the air is of a small fort.  Several qualats grouped together form a village.  A small village sometimes takes its name for the dominant person living there.

FOB Kushamond lies near the center of a grouping of six small towns, which are more significant than a village.  The local bazaar which services these towns lies about one kilometer north of the FOB.  The ground the FOB occupies is not in itself of particular strategic importance, such as the junction of several roads would be, but it is convenient for its expanse of flat terrain.  The name Kushamond comes from the Anglicization of the Russian name for this place, for the detailed map the Russians made of this area is the map used by the Currahees in the tactical operations center and platoon huts.

The man in charge here is Capt Andrew Hill.  His titles include company commander and owner of the battle space.  His First Sergeant is David Cavataio, and his XO is Capt Seth Varayon.  Two of the company’s platoons are located in the FOB, while a third is detached to a location called FOB KKC.  In addition to the two platoons of Currahees here, a platoon of contractors belonging to the Asian Security Guard are in the FOB and are responsible for guarding the perimeter and towers.  A platoon plus of ANA are also located here.  The ANA take the lead in interacting with the locals, and the Currahees provide mentoring to the ANA and the real military power when it is required.

Capt Hill’s battle space is about the size of Rhode Island in extent, and he has his company of Currahees as his primary means of exerting control.  Opposing him are between 200 and 300 Taliban.  The number can vary because this area is a zone of passage to the more strategic areas to the east and west of Paktika province, and Taliban can come and go.  Many of the villages are found completely devoid of men.  In the towns, the situation is less bleak.  The Taliban largely live outside the towns and villages, and exert control over the population by daily visits of groups of five or ten men.  Their main means of exerting control is intimidation through beatings and threats of beatings of the elders.  As a rule, the Taliban refrain from murder, reserving that treatment for those accused of spying.  The Taliban have a well-developed network that keeps them informed of Currahee patrolling activities.

Strangely, the villagers allow their elders to be beaten and intimidated even though they possess the power themselves to stop if they chose to band together.

The village elders are supposed to meet with the District Governor, an appointee of the Karzai regime, on a weekly basis.  That did not begin to happen until recently, when the Taliban began a slow withdrawal into winter quarters.  One demonstration of Taliban control was over the bazaar.  The bazaar did not open because the Taliban forbade it, and it was opened recently only when the Taliban gave permission.  This may be a sign of the weakening grip of the Taliban as winter comes on.  Another sign is of the drop in the rocket attacks made against FOB Kushamond between October and early December.

The Taliban are equipped with AK-47s, belt fed medium machine guns, RPGs, 82 mm mortars, and 107 mm Chinese-made rockets.  They also have Diska .51 caliber heavy machine guns mounted on trucks.  They tend to identify themselves to the villages through the wearing of black clothing.  Capt Hill estimates that the Taliban will try to continue to dominate the area politically through intimidation tactics when their activity resumes in the spring.

(The writing of this story was interrupted for an hour due to an attack by some of the aforementioned 107 mm rockets.)

In the meantime, the district governor will try to win the loyalty of the population by civic development projects constructed over the winter.