NARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan (AP) — This former American military base in northeastern Afghanistan was a critical launching pad during the troop surge to fight Taliban militants, but the pace of fighting in this key border area remains high even after the Afghan military has taken over.
The base in the Nari district of Kunar province was once called Forward Operating Base Bostick and sits at the bottom of a picturesque river valley flanked by terraced farms and high mountain ridges. It is now controlled by the Afghan National Army, who is solely responsible for maintaining security in northern Kunar and Nuristan along the Pakistan border.
These provinces remain a strategically important, but contested, front in the ongoing war. Added to that is the rising tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan over recent cross border attacks. The Afghan security forces are facing their first summer fighting without American ground or air support, and the insurgents struck a deadly first blow by overrunning an outpost near the main base in Nari district earlier this spring, killing 13 Afghan soldiers.
Two years after the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division launched multiple operations in Kunar to clear out entrenched Taliban safe havens, the brigade returned with a small contingent of advisers to guide the Afghans as they fight in one of the country's most difficult regions.
U.S. Army adviser Capt. Blake Richter, a 31-year-old from Savannah, Ga., knows the Kunar River valleys and the danger that they contain. His unit, 1st Battalion, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, was based at Bostick during the troop surge in 2010.
During the surge, coalition forces targeted key Taliban leaders and opened up valleys where the Afghan government had no presence before, but the insurgency still remains highly active in these areas on the border.
For Richter, it wasn't a surprise that Afghan soldiers were encountering the same fight the Americans battled two years earlier. The smuggling routes from tribal areas of Pakistan remain the same and militants use the historical fighting positions they've always used to gain high ground in the mountains.
"I have spent a lot of time up here and I understand how tough it is up here. It's hard for these people."
The base sits at the end of the Afghan military supply route, which makes maintaining and equipping their units difficult. Their generators run a few hours a day, but there's a wood-fired bakery making fresh bread daily and the Afghans planted small patches of flowers around the buildings. They maintain a medical clinic that stays busy treating Afghan soldiers and police who are wounded in firefights and by roadside bombs.
The last American unit handed over the base to the Afghans in November, but the advisers make regular visits to check on the two kandaks based in Nari, who are labeled as being able to operate independent of coalition forces.
Still the Afghan military leaders lament the lack of resources they have in Kunar and Nuristan, where the terrain makes any large movement of troops difficult. After their outpost was overrun in April, the ANA soldiers had to walk the three-hour trek to reoccupy and reinforce the outpost. They have D-30 Howitzers that they can use to defend their mountaintop outposts, but Lt. Col. Shah Mirwais, commander of the 3rd kandak, 2nd Brigade of the 201st Corps, said more firepower is necessary to fight in the mountains.
"This is the border," he said through a translator. "We need big guns and heavy weapons."
While the Afghans are becoming more accurate with their howitzers and mortars, Sgt. Maj. Nasir Ahmad, also from the 3rd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, said they need more helicopters to back up the ground forces when they are attacked and to rescue their wounded in these remote areas.
Richter is worried that the lack of some of these resources may influence the Afghan military to stay grounded to their bases and not conduct offensive patrols and operations in the hard-to-maneuver valleys of Kunar and Nuristan.
"My fear is that if they stay on these positions, it's going to be a long summer," he said. "They are going to keep getting attacked."
Maj. Mohammed Aman Sabazad, the executive officer for the other unit based in Nari, 3rd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 201st Corps, said they are hearing that the Taliban commander in Nuristan, Dost Mohammed, is amassing fighters to attack their soldiers in the Kamdesh district.
Recently the ANA got some back up support in this volatile district when more than 100 newly trained Afghan Local Police returned to Kamdesh. These are local villagers selected by the district elders to be trained on basic police tactics, but are used more as local defense than offensive forces.
Zakria, a 24-year-old who was born in Kamdesh and like many Afghans goes by one name, is a group commander for the ALP in Kamdesh who had just returned from training. Nuristan is not safe, he told an Associated Press reporter through a translator, and they are under attack both from fellow Nuristanis and Taliban fighters who are coming over the border.
"What we are trying to do is bring security to our families," he said.
Just as the military struggles to get equipment into the far northeastern areas, the flow of development and infrastructure funds from the ministries in Kabul is slow to trickle into places like Nari. District Governor Haji Gul Zaman said local workers lost their jobs on the base when the coalition forces left and there should have been a program set up to find them employment.
The local tribal elders were brought to the base recently to learn about the reconciliation program for former Taliban fighters. If the tribes can convince the Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons, the district becomes eligible for money to improve their local economy.
Zaman has a list of projects he wants done in Nari, including a long term project to pave the main road that leads from Nari to Nuristan.
"We will guarantee security, but we need help with these projects," he said.
Richter said that for the Afghan military to prevent this area from languishing back into a Taliban haven, they will need continued support from their own government and people.
"If they can solve the logistics and keep the support of the people, they will be just fine. If they lose either one or both, they are going to need some help."
Kristin Hall was embedded with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division in eastern Afghanistan. Follow her online at www.twitter.com/kmhallpho