War of persuasion: The modern U.S. officer emerges in Afghanistan

U.S. commanders are learning that victory in today's wars is less a matter of destroying enemies than of knowing how and when to make them allies.
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

NARAY, AFGHANISTAN -- Lt. Col. Robert B. Brown could hear the fear in his 24-year-old lieutenant's voice on the patchy radio. "We have enemy inside the wire. It is really bad here," 1st Lt. Andrew Bundermann said. "We need those [expletive] birds now."

Just before 6 a.m., more than 300 insurgents launched a massive attack on Bundermann's remote outpost in the Kamdesh district of northeastern Afghanistan. By 6:30 three of Bundermann's soldiers were dead, and the Apache attack helicopters he desperately wanted weren't going to arrive for another half hour.

Brown, who was at his base about 30 miles away, grabbed the radio handset from one of his sergeants. "You are going to be all right," the 41-year-old officer told his young lieutenant. "We are going to get you as much help as possible."

Bundermann made a wrenching decision. Unable to control the entire outpost, he ordered his remaining troops to collapse around a small cluster of its 23 buildings. Twelve of his 53 soldiers, pinned down by heavy enemy fire beyond those inner defenses, would have to fight on their own until the attack helicopters arrived.

One was a 21-year-old soldier from Loudoun County, who had been wounded in his leg and hip. Bleeding, he crawled on his elbows behind the base's latrine for protection. "Help me," Spec. Stephan L. Mace called out to his fellow soldiers. "Help me, please."

Eight U.S. troops were killed in the Oct. 3, 2009, battle at Combat Outpost Keating, making it one of the deadliest fights for Americans of the Afghan war. For soldiers, the harsh reality of combat has scarcely changed in the decades since Vietnam. To survive, the outnumbered Keating grunts relied on their mutual devotion and marksmanship.

What makes Keating different from past battles is what happened afterward. A decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has forced battlefield commanders to accept that victory in today's wars is less a matter of destroying enemies than of knowing how and when to make them allies. This new kind of war has compelled midlevel officers such as Brown to take on new roles: politician, diplomat, tribal anthropologist.

"My goal is to get people to stop shooting at my soldiers and support government," said Brown, a wiry, quick-talking officer whose three combat tours have imbued him with modesty, skepticism and a little self-doubt.

After the Kamdesh battle, an insurgent leader known as Mullah Sadiq sent word to Brown that he wanted to drive his more radical Taliban rivals from the area around the Keating outpost. Sadiq, who had been on U.S. kill-or-capture lists for five years, needed money and Brown's help brokering a peace deal with Afghan government officials in Kabul. The offer was Brown's chance to ensure his eight soldiers didn't die in vain.

"We don't think Sadiq is a Jeffersonian Democrat," Brown wrote of Sadiq in a February e-mail from Forward Operating Base Bostick in Naray. "But he is rallying public support to the Afghan government and against the Taliban. . . . And frankly, that may be good enough."

In the Dixie cup

Three months before the attack, Brown and his brigade commander, Col. Randy George, had petitioned Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, for permission to close the Keating base and withdraw from the surrounding Kamdesh district.

The outpost, surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides, was isolated and hard to defend. "It felt like we were living in the bottom of a Dixie cup," one of Brown's soldiers said.

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