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

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; A01

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.

Attacks on U.S. forces had increased every year since Keating was established in 2006, and by summer 2009 Brown concluded that the presence of U.S. troops was feeding the insurgency.

His study of the local rebel factions had led him to believe that a U.S. withdrawal from the area would split the insurgency. Most of the powerbrokers in Kamdesh were affiliated with Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, or HiG, an insurgent group that had formed decades earlier to repel the Soviets. Although HiG fiercely opposed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, there were signs that its local leadership was willing to work with the Afghan government.

The other branch of the insurgency was loyal to the Taliban and opposed any Afghan government presence.

As long as U.S. troops remained, HiG commanders wouldn't push out the Taliban leadership from the area. "The HiG and Taliban were competitors," Brown said, "but they could agree to hate us."

Brown was commissioned as an armor officer in 1991 just months after U.S. tanks sliced through Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard in a demonstration of the post-Vietnam Army's raw power.

Two Iraq tours in 2004 and 2007 opened Brown's eyes to the limits of his Army and himself. He avoided "we can do the impossible" pep talks that other commanders used to fire up their troops. His goal was to build the Afghan government and bring his soldiers back alive.

The vast majority of his time was spent quizzing Afghan elders and officials on decades-old tribal disputes and intrigues. In the evenings he scoured the Internet for information on the HiG and its history in Nurestan province during the Soviet era. "There is so much here that is opaque to us," he said.

Even before the Keating attack, Brown believed that he might be able to help broker a peace deal between local HiG leaders and the Afghan government. His hypothesis had led him to write to Sadiq in September, about three weeks before the Keating assault.

In his letter, sent with the approval of his commander, Brown apologized to Sadiq for earlier NATO bombings that had killed civilians. Some of Sadiq's relatives had been killed when U.S. troops fired a missile into the insurgent leader's house, local Afghans said.

Brown also asked for Sadiq's "wisdom." "We need assistance from leaders like you that are able to reach out and encourage the people of Kamdesh to cease the violence and oust the Taliban," he wrote. He offered to meet with Sadiq whenever it was convenient and promised him protection.

A closure delayed

On Sept. 27, McChrystal approved the closing of Keating, which was set for Oct. 9. The general had taken longer than Brown and his immediate bosses had hoped to issue his final decision.

Six days before the planned closure, hundreds of local fighters launched a break-of-day fusillade of rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire and mortar shells at the tiny base. This account of the battle and the negotiations with Sadiq is based on interviews with Brown, Keating troops and U.S. and Afghan officials.

Bundermann jumped out of bed and ran to call Brown's headquarters. Fire was burning through the outpost's wood buildings, and the Afghan soldiers had abandoned their posts en masse.

Brown urged his lieutenant to try to get the Afghans back into the fight.

"Roger," Bundermann replied curtly, knowing from previous experience that the Afghans were a lost cause.

Bundermann decided to focus on holding the base and saving as many of his troops as possible. About 200 yards north of Bundermann's position, five soldiers were hunkered down in an armored Humvee, fighting to keep the insurgents off the outpost.

Rocket-propelled grenades were bouncing off the truck's doors and roof. The troops concluded that it was only a matter of time before a round penetrated the Humvee's armor.

Three of the five soldiers sprinted for nearby cover, but were felled by an grenade blast and a burst of machine-gun fire. Only Mace, who was wounded in both legs, survived. He crawled to a hiding spot between a boulder and the base latrine.

The two soldiers who remained by the battered Humvee -- Spec. Ty Carter and Sgt. Bradley Larson -- fired at two insurgents running across the outpost and then clambered back into the truck. Carter wanted to look for Mace, but Larson ordered him to stay put. "You are no good to him dead," he said.

Carter had always been a bit of an outsider within his platoon. After a stint in the Marine Corps in the late 1990s, he'd cycled through a half-dozen jobs -- movie theater manager, nursing assistant and hardware store clerk. He married, had a daughter and divorced. In 2008, he enlisted in the Army. "I joined for my daughter," he said, "and because I suck as a civilian."

Twenty minutes passed before Carter spotted Mace, who had crawled out from his hiding spot on his elbows.

"Help me, please," the wounded soldier mouthed.

"Stay there," Carter screamed. "I'll get to you when I can."

Over the radio, Brown was pressing Bundermann to determine how many of his troops were missing. "We don't know," the lieutenant initially replied. A few minutes later, Bundermann reported that the unit was unsure of the whereabouts of nine soldiers.

"You need to get accountability for your men," Brown told him.

At the Humvee, Carter had persuaded Larson to let him retrieve Mace. The attack helicopters had arrived and a blast from one of their guns gave Carter cover to sprint to the downed soldier. He tied a tourniquet around Mace's leg, giving it two hard cranks, and stuffed gauze into his shrapnel wounds. He taped a pad over his stomach wound and splinted his fractured leg with a tree branch.

With Mace clinging to his neck, Carter sprinted back to the Humvee. Mace's face was white and his lips were purple. The soldiers worried they were the only Americans still alive in the valley.

Carter volunteered to push back toward the outpost's headquarters to try to find anyone else who was still alive. About 20 yards from the Humvee, he spotted a radio on the ground and ran it back to Larson in the Humvee. They could hear Bundermann organizing a counterattack to take back the outpost.

"Can you get Mace . . . back to the aid station?" Bundermann said.

Mace gripped the stretcher with both hands and groaned in pain as Carter and Larson ferried him to safety.

Battlefield transfusions

Capt. Christopher Cordova, the senior physician's assistant in the Keating aid station, began searching Mace for signs of life. His femoral pulse was weak. There was no pulse in his wrist.

Cordova had never seen a blood transfusion carried out in a field aid station in two years of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was reluctant to experiment on Mace.

"I didn't want to cause more harm," Cordova recalled. "At the same time, I didn't want to sit there and watch him die."

As Mace's heartbeat grew weaker and his skin paler, Cordova and two of his medics each donated a bag of A-positive blood, Mace's type, which Cordova began to pump slowly into one of Mace's veins. He opened his eyes and asked for a cigarette and some morphine to kill the pain.

"You're not a real man anymore now that you've got Floyd's blood in you," said Cordova, referring to one of the medics.

Mace chuckled faintly.

The aid station floor was covered with blood from three of the previous casualties. Body armor and Kevlar helmets, with bits of skull and brain matter, littered the floor. Grenade blasts had knocked most of the pictures off the wall.

Over the next four hours, Cordova pumped three more bags of blood into Mace. At 8:07 p.m. -- about 13 hours after Mace was injured -- the first medical evacuation helicopter touched down at Keating. Cordova and his medics had wrapped Mace in blankets for the trip and pulled a small cap over his head. He hooked up one last bag of blood, from Bundermann, to Mace's arm.

"Mace, you've made it man," Cordova told him when he heard the thump of the rotors.

Mace nodded his head and grinned.

Just minutes after Mace departed, Brown arrived at the outpost. Night had fallen and from the helicopter he saw the smoldering embers of Keating's barracks, chow hall and command post.

Brown told Bundermann that he'd done a good job holding off the attackers. He also asked about Mace. Throughout eastern Afghanistan, staff officers had followed his progress via radio reports from the outpost.

"It was the one good thing that happened on an awful day," Cordova said.

Around 1 a.m. word began to filter through Keating that Mace had died on the operating table. Cordova learned the news from the outpost's first sergeant. "Before he even said a word, I knew it was not good," Cordova said.

Cordova couldn't bear to tell his fellow medics. He retreated to a closet in the aid station where he could be alone.

Abandoning Keating

The next morning, Afghan villagers approached Keating's main gate and asked for permission to collect their dead from the base and a nearby village. Brown gave the Afghans some body bags and told them to stay off the high ground where the U.S. forces were still dropping bombs to take out snipers.

The next two days were spent packing up equipment and rigging the outpost's remaining buildings with explosives. After nightfall on Oct. 6, a half dozen Chinook helicopters flew into Keating and hauled away the troops. Brown climbed on the last bird. As he was leaving, engineers triggered the delayed fuses on the explosives. Forty minutes later Keating was in flames. A B-1 bomber finished the job the next day.

Brown typed up an e-mail cataloguing mistakes he made in failing to build up the outpost's defenses in the months before the planned withdrawal. He sent it to his boss, his fellow battalion commanders and the two-star general assigned to conduct an investigation of the attack. The letter of reprimand the general wrote to Brown closely tracked the e-mail.

A short time later, Brown attended the memorial service for his eight dead soldiers. "These men faced their fears and fought for their brothers. In a desperate few hours, they did their best and gave everything," he said, his dirty, green patrol cap pulled low on his forehead. "It is fitting we mourn what was lost. But I ask every person here to remember and celebrate what was saved by their sacrifice. Sitting among us are soldiers who will once again see their families, love their children and tell their grandchildren what it means to know a hero."

He returned to his seat and forced a smile as his troops, choking back tears, recounted early-morning training runs and late-night bar crawls with friends who were now dead.

Alone in his office a few weeks after the attack Brown re-read the letter he had sent to Sadiq in September. It made him cringe.

"I was playing to his ego. But reading it over, it sounds like I was kissing his ass from a position of weakness," Brown said months later. He paused and exhaled. "We certainly weren't operating from a position of strength."

Part one of two. Story continues Monday.

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