The Magazine

The Other War

Afghanistan is winnable, but victory can't be taken for granted.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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Zabul Province, Afghanistan

Our convoy pulls into Forward Operating Base Lagman at 1200 hours. After three embeds in Iraq, I'm finally visiting "the forgotten war," fought in a truly exotic land rich with history. In fact, I've just seen The Castle, an amazing fortress the locals claim Alexander the Great built. So what am I thinking? My butt hurts. It's been six straight hours in a Humvee along Highway One from Kandahar Airfield and the only exercise I've gotten is shifting in my seat. My escorts are from the Romanian 812th Infantry Battalion. It might have been easy to dislike them because I was exhausted from my flight the previous day and they made me get up at 0300 to grab that oh-so-uncomfortable seat. But of the 37 NATO countries providing 35,000 personnel in Afghanistan, Romania is one of only six (besides the U.S.) that actually allow their men to fight. They deserve gratitude.

Zabul Province, our destination, is north and east of Kandahar, heading towards Kabul. It's an important Taliban gateway from Pakistan, one of five southern Pashtun provinces (out of 34 provinces total), meaning the Taliban have some measure of local support since they arose within that ethno-religious group. Days before I arrived, 16 Afghan National Army (ANA) ambush casualties arrived at FOB Lagman, overwhelming the small aid station and turning infantry and engineers into medics. (All survived.) The now-cocky Taliban then tried to repeat the trick, but this time U.S. airpower hammered them, killing at least 35. ("Taliban," incidentally, is the generic term for the enemy, used now to describe not only that group but also al Qaeda and other terrorists; the military-approved jargon is Anti-Government Elements or AGE.)

Lagman operates under the auspices of a Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) run by the U.S. Air Force. As the name indicates, the team handles civil-affairs projects in Zabul. But the Romanian Army runs the military side. Romanian M.P.s police the nearby mud hut village of Qalat, which they tell me is fairly safe although they won't let me patrol with them there. Two weeks after I arrived the Afghan National Army would have a gun battle there, seizing what proved to be the headquarters of Mullah Dadullah, a butcher frequently called "the military mastermind of the Taliban insurgency." On May 13, Afghan and U.S. forces killed Dadullah in Helmand Province.

The Romanians' main job, however, is to patrol the 93-mile stretch of Highway One that runs through Zabul and to support the Afghan National Police (ANP) stations that line it so as to keep the highway as free as possible from Taliban interference. The Romanians launch about 50 missions a week down the highway and also have a quick reaction force in case the police stations request help. They have taken no casualties during this deployment, but previous Romanian units here were less lucky.

Highway One is vital; its recent repaving after decades of war-related pummeling has tremendously shortened the drive time from Kandahar to Kabul. Of all the civil-affairs projects underway in Afghanistan, probably none is more important than tying the nation together with good roads that facilitate both military and commercial transportation. The latter often goes by way of brightly colored jinga trucks that the Americans call "jingle trucks" and that do indeed often jingle from chimes attached to the back. (Afghans love color, as evidenced also by the nomads' tents and the flags used to mark graves. I even saw an Afghan soldier with a brightly colored AK-47.)

Lagman has a small contingent of Americans who control the other forward operating bases in Zabul, plus a fire base that provides artillery. These are from the 1st Infantry Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment based in Hohenfels, Germany. During the Indian wars and the War of 1812, the 1-4 Infantry was commanded by future President William Henry Harrison. Today it serves primarily as OPFOR, or Opposing Force, to other units in training. In Afghanistan it's gone from playing the Taliban to fighting them.

FOB Lagman is not a fun place, although at least there's no rule requiring constant body armor, as was the case where I stayed in Ramadi, Iraq. Lagman doesn't get shelled. I'm squeezed in with two AP video reporters from Spain in a room meant for one munchkin. There is a tiny PX, but it periodically closes to make supply runs to Kandahar. There are all of four male showers here, two with curtains missing. The water is hot, though. There is only one computer with an Internet connection. Parts of the camp are made of mud.