“The question is not, can we build these outposts?” Bohnemann said. “The question is, can they be sustained by Afghan forces?”
When President Obama told Americans in July that the “tide of war is receding” in Afghanistan, 3,100 soldiers from the 172nd brigade were just beginning to arrive in this rugged swath of the country — their first Afghan deployment coinciding almost exactly with the war’s ebb.
The timing leaves Bohnemann to balance two separate directives that are often at odds with each other: to do all he can to defeat insurgents, while also preparing for an American departure by the end of 2014. Last month, during his first visit to the outpost, called Twins, the tension between those priorities played out on the battlefield.
Soldiers in this strategic foothold want to expand upon the work of their predecessors. But many top U.S. officers worry that doing so while the foreign role in the war effort is carefully dismantled might be counterproductive. Americans are already preparing to hand over bases, outposts and checkpoints to Afghans.
Like the rest of Bohnemann’s domain in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province, Twins is in a rugged, sparsely populated part of the country, where insurgents come from seven militant networks, crisscrossing the Pakistani border and settling into local villages for weeks or months at a time. The Taliban is a concern, but it’s not public enemy number one.
Bohnemann walked from tent to tent at 10,400 feet, where exhausted U.S. soldiers, who have taken indirect fire every day since they arrived, greeted him.
“I saw these mountains for the first time,” one said, “and my mouth dropped.”
Bohnemann’s men suggested building a series of outposts along nearby ridges, which would provide support to police checkpoints within local villages. Past efforts to establish such checkpoints without mountain outposts have backfired, with insurgents swiftly toppling them.
The larger strategy is to keep insurgents in the east away from what’s often referred to as the “Kabul security zone” — an effort to protect the country’s capital and encourage the central government’s growth. The difficulty of that mission has been underscored over the past two weeks, with an attack last week on the U.S. Embassy and the assassination on Tuesday of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani in his Kabul home.
“Owning the high ground allows us to dominate the terrain and to establish a government presence in the area,” Lt. Col. John V. Meyer told Bohnemann. “We’re going to clean out this entire bowl,” he said, referring to the valley below Twins.