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For American Soldiers, War Winds Down in a Remote Afghan Outpost
FT Wayne Journal Gazette ^ | 10/12/2012 | Greg Jaffe

Posted on 10/14/2012 10:38:15 AM PDT by tefis

JAGHATU, Afghanistan - The platoon sergeant poses a simple question to the men of 3rd Platoon: “What do you consider success on a mission?”

There is an uneasy silence in the dark chow tent. In a few months, the U.S. Army will bulldoze its portion of the base, part of America’s slow withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan. All that will remain here in this isolated place is a small Afghan army camp and a mostly empty government building with a mortar hole in its roof, the sum total of 11 years of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in this district 65 miles south of Kabul.

Sgt. Gary Waugh, a soldier on his second Afghan tour, takes a stab at answering the question. “Us not doing a thing,” he says. “Not firing our weapon.”

A few of the soldiers rest their chins on the butts of their rifles. A diesel generator drones in the background as the platoon sergeant surveys his men.

“Right answer,” he replies.

America’s war in Afghanistan has consumed close to $500 billion and cost more than 2,000 American lives. By December 2014, the last American combat troops are scheduled to leave the country. American-led combat operations are expected to finish by the middle of next year. But the war is already ending at little outposts throughout Afghanistan as the U.S. military thins its ranks and tears down bases.

How does a war end? In Jaghatu, these soldiers are learning one way. It ends with resignation, isolation, boredom and the soldiers of 3rd Platoon striding out of the chow tent and into the bright light of a warm September day. Now that they had defined mission success they had another question: What exactly was the mission anymore?

The U.S. troops at Jaghatu are about as isolated as soldiers can be in Afghanistan. Surrounded by mountains and enemy-controlled terrain, the Americans receive almost all of their supplies by helicopter and weekly parachute drops.

Six months ago, before the current soldiers came, the troops’ mission was clearer: to rout the Taliban from the area. In May, a platoon of Americans in Jaghatu fought a four-hour battle with the Taliban for “Antennae Hill,” a large outcropping of rock, scrub and dirt with a commanding view of the valley to the south of the outpost.

When 3rd Platoon, part of 2nd Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrived this summer, its members watched the shaky, helmet-cam footage that their predecessors had taken as they cursed, sprinted and fought their way to the top of the hill without serious casualties. Pfc. Dillon Guillory, 24, played and replayed the video on his laptop, anxiously waiting for his moment.

Except for occasional patrols, Guillory has spent most of his deployment manning a guard post that overlooks a tattered Afghan flag and the crumbling government building. In Jaghatu, U.S. troops don’t charge up hills after the enemy anymore. They don’t search houses, and they rarely meet with Afghan village elders. Those jobs are supposed to be done by the Afghans.

The Americans’ main mission is supposed to be training the Afghan Army soldiers with whom they share the base, but Guillory is one of only a handful of 3rd Platoon soldiers who interact with Afghans.

“How are you doing?” Guillory asks as he checks the badge of an Afghan worker who speaks no English. “Done with work already?”

To pass the time, Guillory and the other soldiers lift weights and box on a small square of dirt to the screams of Rage Against the Machine’s “Street Fighting Man.” They eat Baskin-Robbins ice cream that floats to earth in weekly parachute drops.

Guillory speaks via Skype to his wife in Lafayette, La., as often as twice a day, more frequently than he talks to any Afghan and many of the soldiers in his platoon.

He watches on his laptop computer and coaches her as she removes the stitches from their recently neutered pit bull Nelly. “You’re doing great,” he soothes as her hands shake. “You are not going to hurt him.”

She sends him video real-estate listings of houses that she dreams of buying when his enlistment ends. The latest is a four-bedroom home with triple-crown molding, a glass-enclosed fireplace and a $313,000 list price. “I’ve watched it three times, and I can see us living there,” he messages his wife.

In his three months in Afghanistan, Guillory has experienced only one moment when the war seemed real, immediate and dangerous. In late July, the platoon was sitting on a ridgeline watching some Afghan Army troops when a burst of enemy machine-gun fire exploded around them. Guillory threw himself on the ground, crushing his compass with his body armor, and slid to cover on his stomach.

“The whole thing only lasted 15 or 20 seconds,” he recalls.

One of the enemy rounds ricocheted off of a rock and struck Pfc. Adam Ross, 19, in the back of the head just below his helmet. The medic worked to stanch the bleeding and called out the details of the injury to Guillory, who scribbled the information on his hand and then radioed the outpost.

The soldiers did not learn that Ross was dead until they were back in their tent. There was no cursing or screaming. Just silence. Guillory, who had not known Ross well, snapped a picture of the writing on his left hand. He had been so shaken that instead of writing “Back of Head” he had scrawled “Head Back.”

The next day the medic carved Ross’s last name and the date of his death into a piece of splintering wood in Guillory’s guard shack. Guillory added the 173rd Airborne’s winged insignia in white marker and wondered how he had not been struck, as well.

Weeks passed and the memory gradually faded, until it became just another memorial scratched into a piece of wood and surrounded by graffiti from previous units’ tours.

Now the video real-estate listing from his wife seems as real as anything in his life. It is sundown, and Taliban gunfire pops in the distance. Afghan Army troops respond with a machine-gun blast. “Why would you need a fireplace in Louisiana?” Guillory wonders aloud.

Sometimes the soldiers at Jaghatu have days when they don’t feel like soldiers at all. Second Lt. Andrew Beck, the leader of 3rd Platoon, calls his men together to brief them on their next patrol, which involves sitting on a ridgeline while Afghan police search a small village.

They meet in front of Beck’s hooch, a windowless metal container ringed by six-foot-tall barriers built to shield against incoming rockets and mortar shells. Beck, 25, urges his men three times to be cautious. “The general in charge of Afghanistan’s intent is not to destroy the Taliban,” he says, unintentionally overstating the top commander’s guidance. “I know that sucks. His intent is to minimize civilian casualties.”

Beck’s platoon sergeant speaks next: “You guys have been here more than two months. Just keep doing what you are doing.”

What exactly are they doing? Even their commanders are not sure. The Jaghatu outpost was built in 2010 to interdict Taliban fighters who were believed to be moving weapons through the area and into Kabul. But there were never enough U.S. or Afghan troops to pacify the district or find the enemy weapons caches. Even the addition of about 450 Afghan soldiers this spring has not improved security.

Today, U.S. troop levels are falling, and American commanders are realizing that there are severe limits to what they can accomplish in the time they have left in Afghanistan. Beck feels those constraints most acutely when he passes through the Jaghatu bazaar and stares through bulletproof glass at the rickety stalls and bearded shopkeepers.

“Every time I drive through the bazaar, I wonder what is going on 100 meters outside the base,” he says. The Americans pull some intelligence from the district police chief, but never enough. “You feel useless,” Beck adds.


TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: afghanistan; military; obama; waronterror
Our "Grad School" foreign policy and lethal "rules of disengagement" up close and personal. Epic failure! Our troops are sitting ducks while a resurgent Taliban celebrates!
1 posted on 10/14/2012 10:38:18 AM PDT by tefis
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To: tefis

This is what happens when you have an American hating marxist as Commander and Chief...

2 posted on 10/14/2012 11:51:05 AM PDT by 2banana (My common ground with terrorists - they want to die for islam and we want to kill them)
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To: tefis

Any dads of a soldier there here?

3 posted on 10/14/2012 12:00:30 PM PDT by lookout88 (.combat officer's dad)
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To: tefis
“What do you consider success on a mission?”

Not having been murdered by Obama.

4 posted on 10/14/2012 1:46:56 PM PDT by onedoug
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To: tefis

Obama threw away the hard-earned Iraq victory by failing to have a status-of-forces agreement, and he seems to be willing to toss it in here as well. Get out, no matter what, and let the taliban win after we leave. Sad.

5 posted on 10/14/2012 3:48:12 PM PDT by WOSG (REPEAL AND REPLACE OBAMA. He stole America’s promise!)
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