by DAVID AXE
On May 1, a 12-year-old suicide-bomber blew himself up in a bazaar in the village of Shakeen, killing four people, including provincial councilman Sher Nawaz. The attack, in Bermel district of Paktika province, in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border, was apparently meant to signal the official beginning of the Taliban’s annual “spring offensive.” Just before the attack, a Taliban spokesman had announced the commencement of the offensive to Western media.
It’s no accident that the Taliban chose Bermel for its first attack of the current fighting season. The mountainous district lies astride a major Taliban supply route connecting insurgent cells around Kabul with their safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal area.
Months ago, the U.S.-led coalition identified Bermel as a critical battleground for what could be the last major NATO counter-offensive of the now decade-old war. The U.S. military, by far the largest contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, is scheduled to withdraw the first of its roughly 100,000 troops starting in July. NATO will never again have as many troops in Afghanistan as it does now, necessarily meaning new limits on the alliance’s operations.
On April 4, two platoon from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment — part of the U.S. Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division — flew aboard CH-47F Chinook helicopters onto two adjoining mountaintops in Bermel district. The two-day air assault represented the first phase of what would be a weeks-long operation involving thousands of U.S. and allied troops in at least two provinces. The overall mission: to hit the Taliban’s supply lines before the spring offensive.
“This is a standard reconnaissance mission into northern Bermel along a historic infiltration route from northern Pakistan,” said Captain Chris Tanner, Fox Company commander. “We’re going in there to see what the terrain is like, to develop it for future operations.”
During the night of the 4th and the following day, Tanner’s troopers occupied defensive positions on the high ground overlooking several small villages. They watched through night-vision sights and gunsights and via video feeds beamed to their handheld consoles by overhead drones, noting “atmospherics” — that is, patterns of life.
Pvt. 1st Class Bryan Schlund was the first to see evidence of a Taliban presence, in the form of the insurgent group’s black-and-white flag, flying over a graveyard. A few hours later, the Taliban announced their presence, and their awareness of the Americans’ locations, by firing two rockets at the paratroopers’ positions — luckily without effect.
The Americans left the same way they arrived, by helicopter, armed with their newfound knowledge of Bermel’s terrain and populace, and of the Taliban’s firm presence in the district. Around a week later, a full battalion of paratroopers, including Fox Company, would return to Bermel and neighboring districts for a weeklong operation that echoed a similar initiative in Kunar province, north of Paktika. Six Americans died in the Kunar attack. There were no reports of casualties from the Paktika phase.
NATO’s assault into Bermel had a long genesis, beginning nearly two years ago. In late 2009, new U.S. President Barack Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan. In a move perhaps inspired by the “surge” of tens of thousand of fresh U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Obama announced he would send 30,000 more Americans to Afghanistan over the next year.
The 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade was last of the so-called “surge brigades.” The unit fell into existing positions in Paktika occupied by a force less than half its size. Over the years, NATO had all but abandoned Paktika as its attention focused on Kandahar and other southern provinces. That had left border districts such as Bermel wide open to Taliban influence. Under Col. Sean Jenkins, 4th Brigade aimed to change that.
In the fall of 2010, the newly-arrived brigade focused on expanding its patrol bases and defending against the expected Taliban backlash, including one epic ambush that saw some 300 Taliban fighters nearly overrun Fox Company’s outpost near the town of Margah. Miraculously, no Americans died in that attack. At least 92 Taliban lost their lives.
The brigade extended its efforts. Even with a full brigade of around 5,000 troops, Jenkins still did not have enough forces to cover all of Paktika. So the brigade initiated new road construction to allow troops to move around faster. The Americans also scattered unmanned ground sensors to help map Taliban traffic. “When we have only so many rifle companies … how can we array our forces to interdict [border] crossings?” Jenkins asked rhetorically.
By winter, he had decided on Bermel as one district warranting NATO focus. The April recon by Fox Company, and the subsequent weeklong operation, were both results of the long process of NATO restoring its presence along the border. So, too, was the suicide attack on May 1. Move, counter-move.
It’s not yet clear who will win this round of fighting. For NATO, the stakes are higher. The alliance is running out of time to establish lasting security in Afghanistan. The Taliban, by contrast, enjoys an essentially permanent safe haven in Pakistan. Until someone denies them those safe havens, the Taliban can continue its attacks in Bermel and across Afghanistan … indefinitely.