"We're Still Going To Be Here"
Osama Bin Laden is dead, but for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the war continues.
Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of Al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden, John Dickerson looks at Obama's secret meetings, Annie Lowrey asks who might get the $25 million reward, and Jack Shafer says to follow the news skeptically. Dahlia Lithwick says it's time to end the war on terror, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, and Dave Weigel looks at Congress' reaction. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here.
COMBAT OUTPOST BOWRI TANAH, Afghanistan—The day after news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, the feelings of euphoria among troops at Combat Outpost (COP) Bowri Tanah near the Pakistan border in Khost Province, Afghanistan, had evaporated. Instead, even as they watched footage of celebratory parties back home on a communal television, they seemed to have already reconciled with an unavoidable fact: For them, the war continues.
"My first response was, 'Awesome,' " said Sgt. Michael Farrell, 26. "My second response was, 'We're still going to be here, though.' I knew immediately the war wouldn't be over." Farrell is on his third combat deployment, like many of the soldiers with Charlie Company of Task Force Spader, who operate from this small base. In 2008-09, he spent a year at Restrepo, the beleaguered combat outpost made famous by the Oscar-nominated war documentary of the same name.
Farrell may have woken up Tuesday morning in a world without Bin Laden, but he still woke up in Afghanistan, and will do so for the next eight months. "It's just another day today," he said.
For Charlie Company, another day means aiding the Afghan Border Police in securing a long and porous swath of the Afghan-Pakistan border used by Taliban insurgents and members of the Haqqani Network. It means clearing caches of weapons and IEDs, while also attempting to bring development to villages in the form of schools, wells, clinics, and roads. It means carrying out a complex counterinsurgency effort that can at times seem paradoxical. "If we knock down a door," said Master Sgt. David Birkman, 55, of the company's security operations, "we're right there to help pay for it."
Khost Province has long been a breadbasket for Afghanistan because of its multiple agricultural growing seasons. It's also a historical power base for insurgent networks run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. "Hekmatyar and Haqqani and their forces just flow back and forth through both sides," said Lt. Col. Jesse Pearson, the battalion commander of Task Force Spader, of the border with Pakistan.
According to Pearson, this summer will be a critical period for his battalion and for coalition forces around the country. "We're getting to the point where we're going to have the most [soldiers here] that we're ever going to have," said Pearson. "We've got a four-month window to win the war. We have got to push as hard as we can with security."
To this end, Pearson said his battalion has been maintaining a "high operational tempo," conducting nightly raids and trying to engage insurgents before they reach far into the province. "We're patrolling three or four times a day, pushing really hard and pursuing the enemy as hard as we can so we can create space for the government to flourish and for development to happen."
On Tuesday morning, soldiers from Charlie Company and the Afghan National Police mounted their MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected) vehicles and maneuvered slowly east along steep switchbacks to the Ghulam Khan Gate, the future site of one such development project. The Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team is planning an estimated $25million to $40 million road project and customs house improvement, which would enable up to 800 more trucks to import goods from Pakistan on a daily basis. The project could take two years to finish, and if everything goes as planned, it will generate a significant revenue stream for the Afghan government.
"I hope that it will be fixed soon," said Rossul Wali Roshtein, the administrator of the customs house—just a few small buildings protected by Hesco barriers —at Ghulam Khan Gate. "We don't have any space to unload the trucks." Once the capacity of customs house and road is improved, said Roshtein, trucks will use this route rather than detouring north.
Development missions such as these are an almost daily occurrence for soldiers of Charlie Company. And the risks of leaving "the wire" to conduct them are likely to increase in the coming months. May 1 was the Taliban's official start date for the fighting season, and bases around the country have been on heightened alert. "[The Taliban] is business as usual, and we're business as usual." Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lewis, 30, told me.
Some troops believed that Bin Laden's death would increase the security threat. "I think it's going to surge the insurgency," said Sgt. Jeffrey Thomas, 25. Thomas was deployed to Iraq twice before arriving at COP Bowri Tanah in January. He described his feelings at hearing the news about Bin Laden as happy and relieved. But the general mood in the military, he said, is of fatigue. "We're tired. We've been working for a long time." Bin Laden's death, said Thomas, isn't "going to change anything here. They can celebrate all they want, and it's not going to bring us home. The same thing happened in Iraq. When they found Saddam, we all thought we were going to go home. And, nope."
Maura R. O'Connor is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a freelance foreign correspondent. She is a 2010 Phillips Foundation fellow.
Photographs by Maura R. O'Connor.