From a Fortified Base, a Different View of Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 2, 2009

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ALTIMUR, Afghanistan, March 2 -- From the air, this U.S. Army camp in Logar province looks like a fortified gravel pit on a barren slope, surrounded by two-tiered sacks of dirt and razor wire.

But inside the wire, the hundreds of young sappers and scouts and cavalry troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, all newly arrived for a one-year deployment, have a pretty good life.

There is a heated recreation tent with treadmills and table tennis, 24-hour Internet service, Skype hookups and a bank of low-cost, instant-connection phones. A muted cacophony of domestic chatter rises from the rows of plywood booths.

"Don't forget to make the car payment . . . She told me the new baby has red hair . . . I thought we agreed not to talk about that till I get home . . . No, it's real quiet here, Ma . . . I saw some pretty nice hunting rifles on the Net . . . Are you being a good girl for Daddy?"

One tent away is the DFAC, or dining facility, where a crew of cheerful civilian cooks from India stays up all night preparing a smorgasbord of goodies. There is a mountain of fresh strawberries and grapes, replenished daily. There are six kinds of ice cream and pie. There is surf and turf every Friday night, with lobster tails flown from Maine via Dubai. After a late patrol, the men can still get grilled cheeseburgers at 2 a.m.

The living and bathing accommodations are luxurious, too, especially for soldiers who have slept on open rocky ground and gone for weeks without a real shower on previous deployments in much more primitive and dangerous conditions, such as insurgent-plagued Konar province to the east.

The 20-cot sleeping tents are neatly arranged between gravel paths that absorb the mud and snow. They are lighted brightly enough for soldiers to read at night, although most prefer watching action movies on their laptops. They are heated by giant black plastic hoses that blast in air so hot it can dry a pair of washed socks in 20 minutes. The hoses also pull out the exhaust so powerfully that they can suck up nearby objects -- even a visitor's sweater and cellphone -- like some stealth worm from a science fiction novel.

Then there is the view, which is utterly breathtaking. Logar, located in central eastern Afghanistan about 50 miles south of the capital, Kabul, is a wide valley surrounded by mountains. From the lookout post at Altimur, set atop an abandoned stone wall, one can gaze in any direction at a vertiginously sculpted panorama of pristine white peaks.

But the men of the 3rd Combat Brigade did not come here for a sightseeing vacation, and they seem edgy and bored in this cramped military spa. They are young and fit and ready for action, and the drizzly, leaden weather means little contact with the Taliban insurgents they came to fight.

By tradition, thinly clad Afghan militia fighters hibernate in winter, but come spring they tend to roar out of their caves, primed to take on the latest foreign infidel force. In the 1800s it was the British. In the 1980s it was the Soviets. This time it is the Americans and NATO.

The Taliban fighters may be outnumbered, outgunned and momentarily invisible, but no one at this base underestimates their ruthlessness or resourcefulness.

In the month since Altimur opened, there have been virtually no armed attacks in the immediate area. But there is a permanent threat from buried improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which can be planted on any road overnight. This means that every venture outside the wire becomes a fortified foray inside lumbering vehicles with thick steel plates and tiny portholes, bristling with heavy weapons and sensitive electronic gadgets.

The troops like moving out in the high-wheeled MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which make for a jolting, pitching ride but are far stronger and safer than Humvees. Crew members munch on candy and Slim Jims, listen to iPods, and swear in soldierly fashion while the commanders hunch over their GPS screens, trying to figure out which complex of identical mud-walled compounds is the one they are looking for.

This is new terrain for most of these young Americans, but they view it largely in military terms. Their plans and orders overlie the natural geography of rivers and fields, markets and mosques, with a utilitarian grid and Pentagonese nomenclature, all geared to delineate friend from foe. It would be no different if they were in Bosnia, or Honduras, or South Korea.

But for a visiting journalist who has been here before, who has meandered through the villages of Logar and bought jars of sticky honey beside the roads and chatted comfortably with elders, it feels surreal, confining and terribly sad to return in a veritable tank -- peering through bullet-proof glass at a once-familiar landscape, drawing sullen stares from people who once smiled and invited curious foreigners in for tea.

That was still possible two years ago, before the insurgents got bolder and started burning schools and threatening teachers and beheading government employees as spies, before people in Logar and other provinces began to respect and fear the Islamist rebels more than the weak and corrupt national government.

It was possible before many Afghans, who had welcomed Western forces with open arms after the defeat of Taliban rule in 2001, began to see them as interlopers and gold diggers and oppressors from a decadent way of life, before any reported abuse by foreign troops became accepted as fact, before a Westerner browsing in a vegetable market became a potential target instead of a guest.

Today, the only way any American can tour this beautiful province, even in relative safety, is under the protection of armed troops who see the enemy -- not inaccurately -- behind every nodding birch, every garden wall and every picturesque, snow-covered crag.

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