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Feature: Outposts vital in Afghanistan

20 Taliban killed in southern Afghanistan ops: officials
Kabul (AFP) Oct 12 - Twenty Taliban militants were killed and a number arrested in separate operations involving foreign forces and Afghan troops, police, military commanders and the government said Monday. The commander of border police in southern Afghanistan, General Saifullah Hakim, said 14 Taliban were killed when more than 60 insurgents attacked them in Shorabak district of Kandahar province at about 10:00 pm (1730 GMT) Sunday. "Fourteen enemies were killed. Three bodies were left at the scene and the rest of them were taken away. Nine (Taliban) were wounded," he told AFP. The militants came from neighbouring Pakistan and retreated back over the border after the attack, police said. In a second incident, Afghan National Army (ANA) senior commander in the south General Shir Mohammad said three Taliban were killed and two arrested in a joint operation in Qala-e-Gal village in Sangin, Helmand province on Sunday. A third incident saw three militants killed in a similar operation on Sunday in Omar Khil village, in southern Zabul province, the defence ministry in Kabul said in a statement. NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said a rocket-propelled grenade, ammunition belt and communications equipment were found at the scene and destroyed. ISAF, meanwhile, added that a suspected Taliban commander and several militants thought to be linked to the drugs industry in Nahri Sarraj district, Helmand, were arrested on Sunday. "Haji Khan Mohammed is considered a senior power broker in the district, and it is believed that his drug operations provided financial support to enemy fighters throughout southern Afghanistan," a statement said. Forty rocket-propelled grenades, two ammunition vests, several thousand machine-gun rounds, equipment for making roadside bombs, three AK-47 assault rifles and 20 mortar rounds were destroyed at the scene, it added. ISAF said that none of its troops died in the operations but the Afghan defence ministry said three ANA soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Gardaseri district in southern Pakyta province.
by Richard Tomkins
Charkh, Afghanistan (UPI) Oct 12, 2009
Although the Obama administration is continuing its heated and divisive debate over the U.S. military's future posture and strategy in Afghanistan, a fundamental feature of the conflict is likely to remain short of withdrawal.

It's the COP, or combat outpost, from which U.S. and multinational troops implement the nuts and bolts of counterinsurgency operations -- missions to find and engage terrorists and insurgents in specific geographic areas, close-in security patrols to free villages of insurgent influence and foster a sense of safety, and implementation and monitoring of hearts-and-minds humanitarian and infrastructure projects in conjunction with government authorities to weave a positive relationship between the two.

"In a country as large and complex as Afghanistan, ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) can't be everywhere," U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of multinational forces in Afghanistan, wrote in an Aug. 30 strategy assessment to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "ISAF must focus its full range of civilian and military resources where they will have the greatest effect on the people."

That means using COPs in "high density" population areas in a country where the words "remote" and "isolated" take on special meaning given that about 70 percent of its people live in rural areas. COPs in sparsely populated areas will be closed under the general's assessment of the war and the way forward to better reposition assets and defeat the Taliban.

COPs, which vary by degree in austerity, are inhabited by company or platoon-sized units with small Afghan security force elements who they mentor and work with. They are generally adjacent to or near groups of villages. Challenges vary. COPs Monti and Charkh are examples.

THE CHALLENGE IS TERRAIN
COP Monti, located in an old Afghan army compound in the Hindu Kush mountain range, is located in the Asmar District of Kunar province, close to the border with Pakistan, which Taliban gunmen use as a safe haven. The men of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment are responsible for three districts, each separated by valleys and peaks of varying height. The combined population of the districts is as much as 100,000 over 400 square miles, the more inaccessible parts of which are used as a transit area to and from Pakistan by Taliban fighters and other anti-government groups.

Only about half of the unit's sector at most is accessible by the unit's Humvees and other armored transport vehicles.

"My biggest challenge is the terrain," said Capt. Paco Bryant, Charlie Company's commander. "I know where they (the Taliban) are but can't get to them. And what makes it worse is that I know they know that."

The Taliban -- guesstimated in the mid-100s at any given time in the sector -- find Charlie Company. Since May the base has been hit by indirect rocket and mortar fire from nearby mountain ridges more than 20 times, said Capt. Don Maye, who is with an artillery battery on the base that was once overrun by mujahedeen guerrillas when Soviet troops occupied it in the 1980s.

Bryant's men also get ambushed along Route Stetson about twice a month. Stetson is a dirt track -- about 12 feet wide at most -- that snakes along the Kunar River and is tightly flanked by mountains. It's used twice a week for Afghan-driven and U.S. escorted supply convoys for outposts farther north and the dozens of civilian cargo vehicles that tag along.

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel for them," Bryant said of attacks. "The drivers panic, trucks overturn or crash into each other and create a huge bottleneck. Nothing can pass until the wreckage is cleared away, which means they have another opportunity to shoot at coalition forces and create an even larger bottleneck."

Also, people from villages near ambush points loot what they can.

"We can't reward the nonsense and shenanigans going on," Bryant said. "If I'm going through your village and get ambushed, guess what? Your schools won't be built, the wells won't be dug."

Aid projects and humanitarian drops are instead conducted for villages along the main paved road near the base, where inhabitants cooperate with the government and provide information of any Taliban activity in their area.

FEAR AND AMBIVALENCE
"We're trying to make inroads with the local people, build relationships," said Capt. Jason Wingeart, commander of COP Charkh in Logar province. "But many are scared or just plain ambivalent, and building trust takes time."

Wingeart is with Bravo Company, 1-32, a sister unit to Capt. Bryant's in Kunar province, far to the east. The unit's area of responsibility comprises just 178 square miles and is located 55 miles southeast of Kabul, the capital. Between 55,000 and 60,000 people live in Charkh, which features fruit orchards and fields of corn along a river.

Bravo's challenge is building the relationships with locals that produce cooperation with coalition forces, which not only helps with security but clears the path for beneficial hearts-and-minds programs.

"The bad guys are very good at intimidating people and controlling what they do," he said.

"We're new here. We arrived in early May and are the first Americans here, or at least the first in many years. How people treat us depends on the area. Those close to here (the COP) are starting to come around. Farther out, they're more stand-offish."

Wingeart estimates the number of hardcore gunmen -- Taliban and its allied Haqqani Network -- in the Charkh District at 30 to 40 at any given time.

Charkh, like other COPs, is vulnerable to attack. Last week several RPGs exploded overhead and the compound briefly was raked by gunfire from a hill close by. It was attack No. 17. Two days later, while on an intelligence gathering mission about 5 miles from the COP, a platoon killed two gunmen after they were fired upon while setting up a security position.

The exact number of COPs in Afghanistan is not immediately available. But they are in every province of the country and, as in Iraq during the surge of U.S. forces, prove themselves the tip-of-the-spear facility in the effort to bring order to the country.

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