The Virtues of Getting Off the FOB

by Joshua Foust on 8/2/2009 · 1 comment

On my way home from Afghanistan earlier this year, I wrote a long essay about how all the force protection measures the Army has put into place to safeguard the lives of its soldiers have actually been contributing to the insurgency and making their deployments more dangerous. A month later, one of my friends in Khost related a story about how force protection rules made their lives incredibly more difficult and dangerous than they need to be. But the nuts and bolts of why getting off the base, and doing so outside enormous armored trucks, has such an effect aren’t often explored.

One of Spencer Ackerman’s guest bloggers linked to this story, however, that makes this point perfectly:

The platoon has a small fleet of up-armored Humvees at the base, but they are rarely used, which is just fine by the troops. Combat vehicles are “a magnet for trouble,” said Staff Sgt. Danieto Bacchus, a squad leader here and a former mechanized infantryman with two tours to Iraq. “What I like about the mission here is the walking … The freedom of movement of being able to walk anywhere … just my rucksack, my radio and my guys that I’ve got to worry about.”

The mission of the FOB Baylough platoon is twofold, according to Maj. Greg Cannata, the senior 1-4 officer in Afghanistan: to secure the district center and to “disrupt Taliban and other enemy forces in Deh Chopan.”

The platoon is succeeding on both counts, Cannata said. “It’s positioned on the No. 1 [insurgent] supply route in Deh Chopan,” he said. “That forces the enemy to use less desirable routes for their mission.” Meanwhile, protecting the district center “prevents the Taliban claiming a complete victory in one of the districts it wants the most in Zabul province,” Cannata added.

Of course, not everything is perfect. While their posture is correct, their actions really aren’t, since they’re overly concerned with killing baddies and not holding ground. The nearby villagers still say they almost never see U.S. or Afghan troops. In the last three years of troop rotations, they’ve not been able to gain any more ground. And while the people there are more willing to collaborate with the U.S. troops than they were a few years ago, the troops themselves have been saddled with an almost impossible task:

First Lt. Jason Basilides, 26, is the platoon leader. He readily acknowledges that the combination of distance from the flagpole and the multiple duties of working with the Afghan security forces, liaising with the local powerbrokers and even acting as contracting officer for U.S. Agency for International Development projects, all while leading his troops, makes for “a dream platoon leader job.”

He may appreciate having the opportunities to do that much, but that is several steps beyond a reasonable expectation for an O2 in a remote outpost. Not that low-ranking officers are automatically unworthy, but with practically no staff support, there’s no possible way he can do all of those jobs well. So what suffers as a result? We’re not really sure—it could be everything, it could be USAID (for example) is pretty much a non-entity in the area.

However, these troops have a much better sense of their area than most do on the larger bases. Even if they’re physically incapable of being all places at all times, and their tour is riskier than a tour, say, on Bagram, there are positive lessons to draw from them, even as their story highlights the urgent need for more troops (and civilians!) to be off-base and among the people.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

David M August 3, 2009 at 9:39 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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