COMBAT OUTPOST KEATING, Afghanistan—The U.S. soldiers inside the bunker at this remote coalition base were unsure if the explosion outside was part of a mortar training drill or an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.
Then, the staccato crack of small-arms fire signaled the onset of an enemy attack. It was over by the time the men were ready to shoot back. "Once we get to our battle stations, they know they're going to get pounded, so they usually hit us and then back off, just to get us riled up," says Army Sgt. Mark Putnam. "It's really frustrating."
The Afghan counterinsurgency effort is stuck at an impasse at this small coalition outpost in eastern Nuristan province, the first line of defense from nearby insurgent safe havens across the border in Pakistan. Originally built to house a provincial reconstruction team tasked with integrating poor yet fiercely independent mountain communities about 15 miles from the Pakistani border, Combat Outpost Keating itself has turned into the grindstone of a combat mission no longer measured in clear gains or losses.
Deteriorating security in the surrounding Kamdesh area has shut down the road that once connected the outpost to villages deeper in the mountains, at the expense of aid and reconstruction. United Nations food and relief shipments have ceased. At the same time, the U.S. presence has served as a "screen" to allow development to push forward in population centers elsewhere in the region, according to Col. John Spiszer, who commands the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade in northeast Afghanistan.
"It's hard to maintain, but we can do it," says Spiszer. "We can maintain forces there easier than the enemy can do it. Part of the counterinsurgency is persistence, and it takes time. We're making strides, but they're very slow."
Of the 3,500 to 4,000 Army troops from the 10th Mountain Division scheduled to begin arriving this month, Spiszer says that as many as 500 will reinforce his area of operations, which also includes the provinces of Laghman, Nangarhar, and Kunar, now the single most violent in the country.
For the time being, he adds, it's a matter of keeping a "foothold for future operations."
At the post, improbably situated at the bottom of a steep ravine cut by the Landay River and flanked on three sides by forested slopes where insurgents roam freely, members of Bravo Troop, a unit of the 3rd Brigade, live a lean existence along with 60 Afghan army soldiers. Meals are served only twice a day, sometimes just once. Supply deliveries—always subject to bad weather—come by helicopter that sling their loads up through treacherous river valleys at night to avoid being shot at. Foot patrols do not range beyond the valley.
Coordinated attacks on the outpost average about one a week. Coils of razor wire line shelves of rock that lean downward; some of the larger outcroppings have been dynamited completely to prevent insurgents from using them as firing points. A series of red flags less than 30 yards overhead on the southern ridge shows just how close they have come.
So far, no coalition forces have been killed in the firefights. But total exposure on all sides means ordinary activities like walking to the latrine or lifting weights in the makeshift gym come with added risk. On a recent afternoon, an RPG crashed through the plywood roof of the dining hall between meal times, shattering the arm of one of the Afghan cooking staff. "In the first couple of weeks, you'd look up every time you go out," says Sgt. Shawn Worrall, who's lived at the outpost since July. "But then you just sort of forget it and go about your business, though you might glance at the spots you've been attacked from before."
Going outside the wire can be costly. In late October, Capt. Rob Yllescas was killed by an improvised explosive device while crossing a wooden bridge within view of the outpost. The bridge was quickly rebuilt but is closed to the public.
U.S. officers remain skeptical about local loyalties. Nuristan, once known as "the land of the infidels," has a history of rejecting outsiders and was the last corner of Afghanistan to embrace Islam.