KABUL - It was six in the morning on Oct. 3, 2009, when insurgents began their assault on Combat Outpost Keating, a remote area in Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan. The attack started with small-arms fire, but soon escalated as up to 300 militants -- it's unclear exactly how many -- started to rush the outpost where two American platoons and a command element were positioned. Base commanders at Keating called for urgent air support. Insurgents were inside the wire. Parts of the outpost were on fire. If help didn't come soon, the commanders said, COP Keating would be overrun.
Air support eventually did arrive at Keating and the attack was repelled, but eight American soldiers were killed.
A military investigation last week into the deaths offered harsh criticism. The investigation said commanders on the ground had become "complacent" with base security at COP Keating once they learned that the outpost scheduled to be closed. Military commanders in eastern Afghanistan had determined that COP Keating was of no real strategic or tactical value. In effect, the investigation blamed commanders for not continuing to adequately secure Keating once they knew U.S. troops would be leaving it.
"There were inadequate measures taken by the chain of command, resulting in an attractive target for enemy fighters," the investigation said.
But why were U.S. troops still at COP Keating in October 2009, months after commanders decided to evacuate to outpost? Was it complacency that killed the soldiers, or delays in leaving the outpost in the first place?
Clearly something went wrong. Why did eight American soldiers die defending an area the U.S. military no longer wanted to hold?
This May 2009 photo provided by the Mace family was taken by Army Spec. Stephan Mace at Combat Outpost Keating. The photo shows the base on low ground, surrounded by craggy outcroppings. Mace and seven other soldiers were killed Oct. 3, 2009.
The answer isn't straightforward and raises troubling questions about who decides where American troops are positioned on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Military officials familiar with decision making in eastern Afghanistan suggest that delays in closing COP Keating were motivated by politics in Kabul and a desire to appease the Afghan government. They spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.
The province of Nuristan is a series of sparsely populated valleys, forests and mountain peaks. The few people who live in Nuristan survive mostly on subsistence farming. I was in the area last week. It looks like Colorado, green in the summer, cold in the winter. If it weren't dangerous, Nuristan would be a paradise for hikers, rock climbers and cross-country skiers. But it is dangerous.
COP Keating was part of a cluster of outposts, which also included COP Lowell and Observation Post (OP) Fritshe. Observation posts like Fritshe are generally smaller than combat outposts and usually serve,as their name implies, as lookout posts for larger bases.
The summer of 2009 was a highly sensitive time in Afghanistan. Violence was reaching record levels and national elections about to be held. President Hamid Karzai was facing tougher-than-expected opposition from his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai and his supporters were counting on winning trouble spots in the south and east. These warzones would be key in determining the election.
In June, just two months before the vote, the governor of Nuristan, Jamaluddin Badr, a Karzai ally, complained to the Afghan government -- and in the Afghan media -- that his province was too unstable for elections. Specifically, the governor worried a village called Barge Matal would be overrun by insurgents. By any standard, Barge Matal cannot be considered vital to American security interests. It is tiny and remote, with a population of roughly 2,500.
Nonetheless, the Afghan government requested U.S. assistance in securing Barge Matal before the August vote. The U.S. military complied. After all, the U.S. mission was, and remains, to support the Afghan government.
In July 2009, about 200 American soldiers were dispatched to Barge Matal. Since U.S. forces didn't have an existing presence in the area, the troops set up a temporary base in a school.
Supply challenges in the region
U.S. troops and supplies in Afghanistan have long been in short supply. It is especially complicated and costly to maintain outposts in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There are few roads in the region. Almost everything must be brought in by air. Soldiers need water, fuel, food, ammunition, air support, access to medevac helicopters and, above all, protection. It is even more difficult to supply and protect men when they are operating outside a fortified outpost, as the soldiers were in Barge Matal, patrolling from a school. At least on a base, even a small one, soldiers have a fixed perimeter.
Although U.S. commanders had decided to close COP Keating, COP Lowell and OP Fritshe, the Barge Matal mission requested by the Afghan government changed the calculation. Military officials say with the Barge Matal operation under way, commanders on the ground simply didn't have the resources required to evacuate Keating, Lowell and Fritshe; so the outposts remained.
On Aug. 20, elections were held across Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan at the time. I visited polling stations across Kabul and spoke to campaign workers and elections monitors. Based on what I saw and reported, voter turnout was very low. Elections observers said as few as 10 percent of voters cast ballots in warzones in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Karzai claimed an early victory. A U.N. investigation, however, determined that nearly a million ballots, most of them for Karzai, had to be thrown out because of fraud. The U.N. investigation found evidence of massive ballot box stuffing, especially in dangerous areas in the south and east where there was little oversight. International monitors simply didn't go to places like Barge Matal because it was too dangerous. With few checks in place, ballot boxes were stuffed, including those in Barge Matal.
Around 25,000 votes were cast in Barge Matal, approximately ten for every person in the village. A cynic might say U.S. forces were called in so Barge Matal would be secure enough for local officials to rig the vote. I have spoken to cynics within the U.S. military leadership in eastern Afghanistan. They go further than that. They believe the Afghan government used the military (which brought in the ballots by helicopter) to provide cover for vote rigging and that the Afghan request to secure Barge Matal had deadly consequences for U.S. troops.
Four American soldiers were killed from July through September while securing Barge Matal. But this was only the beginning. Five more American troops were killed on Sept 8 in nearby Ganjgal, in part because resources they required (air and drone support) were diverted to help the soldiers in Barge Matal. If air assets are sent to one area, they must be pulled from another.
The knock-on effect of Barge Matal appears to have also indirectly contributed to the deaths of the 8 American soldiers at COP Keating.
'Inertia set in'
After the August elections, U.S. commanders -- for reasons that remain unclear -- failed to resume their plans to evacuate COP Keating. The evacuation was initially delayed by the Barge Matal mission, and delays seem to have begot more delays. As one military source said, "inertia set in."
Last week's military investigation into the deaths at COP Keating faulted commanders for not maintaining base security. Perhaps they should have left COP Keating immediately after the elections. But the mission at Barge Matal had given the entire area a perception of a greater importance. It seemed to be a region that was on the Afghan government's radar.
Now some in the military are speaking out and believe the Afghan government's desire to secure Barge Matal, for whatever reason, may have cost 17 Americans lives: four in Barge Matal itself, five at Ganjgal and eight at Keating.
They died, according to one officer, because senior leaders in the military working closely with Afghan politicians in Kabul were "pandering to the Afghan government."
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