|An investigation continues into how the Taliban overran the US Bari Alai outpost in Afghanistan|
Al Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher spent two weeks embedded with the US military along the northeast Afghan border with Pakistan, where the Taliban has US troops on its heels.
As part of a special series, he asks if US claims of success in the region stand up to scrutiny.
When Barack Obama, the US president, hosted Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari at the White House back in May, a sense of urgency hung over the meeting that may not have been appreciated until now.
“US troops are serving courageously and capably in a vital mission in Afghanistan,” assured President Obama, “alongside our Afghan and international partners.”
But given that, half a world away, the Taliban had just days earlier overrun a US army outpost in the Kunar River valley near Pakistan, President Obama surely knew some people were casting doubt over just how loyal the Afghan National Army is to their American comrades.
I arrived at my combat embed with the 10th Mountain Division on June 14 – six weeks after the US army suffered defeat at the Bari Alai outpost.
I had not even arrived in Kunar Province when I first heard rumours of what had happened. It was the buzz among journalists at Bagram Air Base, who thought I might learn more as I was heading to that area of military operations.
So, before boarding my early morning flight to the Afghan-Pakistan border the next day, I arranged for a late night meeting with Army Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Counts, the spokesman for Bagram Air Base.
New secret prison
As might be expected, Counts kept quiet on all the predictable questions, including the construction of a new secret prison on the base to try and exorcise the ghosts of Bagram’s past.
He also said Afghan civilians killed in US drone attacks were an issue for OGA – other government agencies.
However, there was one squeamish point in our friendly pre-embed chat.
“How about the army outpost that was overran by the Taliban up in Kunar?” I asked.
|Clayton Swisher (right) and cameraman Tom Nicholson spent 14 days with US troops|
Silence. Lean back in the chair. Change of posture. “When you say overrun,” Counts carefully began, “I’m thinking the Taliban held on to that actual piece of real estate and planted their flag. That never happened.”
“True enough,” I dissembled back, “But isn’t every single outpost in Afghanistan subject to new tenants from time to time? Brits? Russians? Americans?”
How could the fact that the US lost one of “its” pieces of real estate to the Taliban be denied when the only three Americans who were there were killed and the insurgents made off with almost a dozen Afghan prisoners of war?
It was a question that I took with me on arrival for my embed in Kunar with Charlie Company 1-32. In my first and only meeting with the battalian executive officer – a portly man who had been making the rounds at the local outposts and had joined us in Asmar – it was clear I struck a nerve.
“The Taliban got their asses kicked!” bellowed Major Peter Graner, who – from across the conference room table where we sat – went on to educate me on how the actual overrun itself did not last long and how US airpower then blasted the Taliban to smithereens.
Away from the hot air of rhetoric, the major went on to tell me how the army is winning in Afghanistan. However, the rank and file grunts of Charlie 1-32 tell a different tale.
Some of them told me they participated in the quick reaction force mission to rescue Bari Alai, but had arrived too late.
“There was only brief media attention when… [the outpost was overrun] in the United States, where the war is all but forgotten”
Some had to remove the remains of their friends whose bodies, they say, had been decimated by US bombs that were called in on their own position.
The young soldiers wax heroic over what happened at Bari Alai.
The incident merited only brief media attention back in the United States, where the war is all but forgotten from the news agenda as a weary public would rather look elsewhere.
However, something that did make it onto the Fox News channel was a quotation by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Ted Adams, who remarked that the Afghan soldiers, who were ultimately released by their Taliban captors, were returned in “good condition, too good, actually”.
This supposed Afghan “treachery” has yet to be proven.
In fact, from the anecdotes I collected from the American troops who first picked up the returned Afghan prisoners, the Afgan Nation Army (ANA) captives were “badly shaken” and “definitely not faking it”.
Defeat is never easy to admit, so it is not beyond the pale to this journalist that attempts to lay the blame on Afghan footsteps are but a way of shelving America’s own severe tactical shortcomings at Bari Alai.
An investigation continues into what had happened at the overrun Bari Alai outpost.
Some of the only witnesses living may be found in the Baltic capital of Riga, of all places, as a Latvian special forces contingent was present when the takeover occurred.
The three felled American soldiers were nominated for medals of valour, though the level of their heroics may not be appreciated as the facts are yet to be made public.
It was in that spirit that a coalition soldier shared with me a thumbdrive copy of the Bari Alai takeover, which Al Jazeera aired for the first time in Monday.
Here was the evidence, in case anyone forgets, of US war planes dropping munitions on its own personnel.
It clearly shows how, out in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, America remains engaged in a bitter war.
It is not the first time America’s been overrun by insurgents. There were clear instances of it in Vietnam, for example.
But one would not expect it from a war that many American thought was all but over.
It was George Bush, after all, who declared on July 4, 2002, that in “Afghanistan we defeated the Taliban”.
That was never a true statement.
And, as the Obama Administration takes ownership of this war nearly eight years since it first began, there is mounting evidence to suggest the opposite may be true.