Battle of Kamdesh
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The Battle of Kamdesh took place during the War in Afghanistan. It occurred on October 3, 2009, when a force of 300 Taliban assaulted the American Combat Outpost ("COP") Keating near the town of Kamdesh of Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan. The attack was the bloodiest battle for US forces since the Battle of Wanat in July 2008, which occurred 20 miles (32 km) away from Kamdesh. The attack on COP Keating resulted in eight Americans killed and 27 wounded whilst the Taliban suffered an estimated 150 killed.
As a result of the battle, COP Keating was partially overrun and nearly completely destroyed.:531–41Observation Post ("OP") Fritsche was attacked simultaneously, limiting available support from that position. The Coalition forces withdrew from the base shortly after the battle. A deliberate withdrawal had been planned some time before the battle began, and the closing was part of a wider effort by the top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to cede remote outposts and consolidate troops in more populated areas to better protect Afghan civilians. The Americans "declared the outpost closed and departed—so quickly that they did not carry out all of their stored ammunition. The outpost's depot was promptly looted by the insurgents and bombed by American planes in an effort to destroy the lethal munitions left behind."
After an investigation, four officers in the chain of command were disciplined for their failure to adequately support the base. Eight aviators were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for helping defend the base. Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha and Staff Sergeant Ty Carter were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle. The Battle of Kamdesh was the first battle since the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963 for which two living Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Kamdesh base origins
The Allies believed the key to denying anti-coalition militia access to supply lines into Pakistan, and to extend government control by 2006, was to build provincial reconstruction team bases. The Allies hoped that extending these bases into Nuristan, one of the most remote and isolated eastern provinces in Afghanistan, they could demonstrate to the entire Afghan population the government's credibility and power. These bases were a key element of the American counterinsurgency strategy. This approach was supported by the stationing of Navy Commander Kimberly Evans, a PRT leader in the First Lady’s box at the 2006 State of the Union address.[clarification needed]: 28, 41, 90–8, 123
Colonel John “Mick” Nicholson, Commander of the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, had observed that Kamdesh was located at a point where three of the valley systems from the Pakistan border in the north converged. Nicholson and officers of his command believed that much of the flow of weapons and troops from Pakistan could be stopped at Kamdesh. Gul Mohammed Khan, the government administrator for Kamdesh District, lived at the intersection of the Landay-Sin and Darreh Ye Kushtoz rivers. These valley and road intersections combined with the political leadership in the area inspired the positioning of the Nuristan PRT.: 28, 41, 90–8, 123
The Nuristan provincial reconstruction team base was strongly recommended by Nuristani Province Governor Tamim Nuristani. On July 20, 2006, 2:00 a. m. all of Cherokee Company and one platoon from Able Troop, 3-71 Cavalry Squadron dropped in two Chinooks on Landing Zone Warheit, a cornfield on a ridge near Kamesh, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Howard to garrison the area. The camp was constructed by 3-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division (Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition) in the summer of 2006 and was manned by their ABLE Troop element until June 2007.: 28, 41, 90–8, 123
The area had not been occupied by any conventional US forces prior to 3-71 Cavalry's takeover, although Special Operations forces, including a Navy SEAL team that took major casualties when their helicopter was shot down by enemy fire in Operation Red Wings, operated in the area. The camp was originally constructed to be a PRT, called PRT Kamdesh, but due to extremely high levels of fighting in the area it remained a fire base instead of a PRT. In December 2006 it was renamed Camp Keating after the death of ABLE Troop 3-71 Cavalry 10th Mountain Division's Executive Officer Benjamin Keating, who died November 26, 2006 while conducting combat operations south of the camp. 3-71 Cavalry conducted many successful combat missions in the area surrounding the camp and repelled various attacks on the base.: 28, 41, 90–8, 123
Adverse terrain affects operations
The Kamdesh village and most of Nuristan is located in the Hindu Kush. This is a lofty mountain range characterized by steep slopes of enormous granite boulders separated by fast moving rivers in deep narrow valleys. The temperate climate of the area provides hot summers, a monsoon season in the summer, and cold winters of ice and snow extending down into the valleys. The combination of volatile weather and rugged mountains make any kind of travel and life in general difficult and challenging. American military operations in Kamdesh were affected as soon as units began gathering for deployment in the area. Operation Deep Strike began on May 5, 2006. This was a re-deployment from the Cowkay and Korangal Valleys to Kamdesh. The pick up zone for Able Troop 2nd Platoon was called PZ Reds, located on the side of an 8,000-foot mountain. It was nicknamed “Heart Attack Ridge” due to its steep slope and obstacles hazardous to low flying aircraft.: 80–3, 94–5, 116–20
While attempting the pickup, a Chinook transport helicopter crashed in the darkness at 10:09 PM when the rear rotor hit a tree, and the helicopter slid down the slope and over a cliff, exploding in flames and killing all the crew and passengers. There was an element of Able Troop 3-71 CAV 2nd Platoon still left on the PZ after the crash that worked relentlessly to recover the bodies of their 10 comrades and destroy sensitive equipment left among the wreckage.: 80–3, 94–5, 116–20
After marching into the proposed site for the Kamdesh provincial outpost, Captain Michael and Cherokee Company’s second platoon were confronted by a large boulder in the middle of the site that made use of a helicopter landing area in the PRT site impossible. The rock could not be blown apart without raining fragments into the town of Urmul across the Landay-Sin river. The landing zone was therefore placed on the other side of the river on a rocky peninsula jutting into the river near Urmul. This separation of the landing zone, and the fact that PRT was surrounded by mountains on three sides make the site unappealing because of the difficulty of mounting an effective military defense.: 123–8, 136–8, 181–91, 407
On August 8, 2006, 19 days after the first American landing, the PRT was attacked for the first time. Captain Frank Brooks, commanding at LZ Warheit, was dismayed to discover the PRT could not be quickly supported by LZ Warheit. From the PRTs position, that resembled the bottom of a funnel, it could not be seen or supported with indirect fire due to the multi-level and complicated local terrain. The tall mountains made a joke of two dimensional maps, and rendered pre-determined landmarks useless. Eventually supporting aircraft scattered the attackers, but if the weather had been a problem, air support would not have provided the decisive results.: 123–8, 136–8, 181–91, 407
From August 8 to November 25 of 2006 strenuous efforts were made to supply and expand the PRT by supply convoys using the Landay-Sin valley road from Naray FOB. Afghan contractors were unable to keep the narrow mountain road in safe condition, and convoys were subject to constant ambush from the surrounding mountains that lined the entire valley to Naray.: 123–8, 136–8, 181–91, 407
It was against regulations for officers to drive a convoy vehicle, but First Lieutenant Ben Keating took the wheel while returning an armored supply truck to the Naray FOB. He wanted to avoid risking the lives of his men while traveling on an unstable road subject to ambush with an overweight vehicle. During the highly risky convoy, the road collapsed under the weight of the Keating's vehicle. He was thrown from the truck and the it rolled over him and sank into the Landay-Sin river. His death had a traumatic effect on the morale of 3-71 Cav. The Allies stopped using the Kamdesh-Naray road as a result.: 123–8, 136–8, 181–91, 407
Combined with difficult conditions for air supply, and a continuing loss of support from the local population, supply to what was renamed Camp Keating on November 26, 2006 was steadily strangled. As it became obvious that COP Keating was too isolated, indefensible, and rapidly becoming impossible to supply, plans were made to close it beginning in December 2008.: 123–8, 136–8, 181–91, 407
Counterinsurgency effort in Nuristan
The population of Nuristan is ethnically distinct from the rest of Afghanistan, and divided into four major groups, the Kom, Kata, Kushtoz, and Kalasha. These subgroups were in turn divided into different clans and sects of the Islamic religion, depending on lineages and the interpretations of individual religious leaders. These groups could clash violently over water rights, pasture, and religious beliefs. Five different languages and various dialects are spoken by these groups, making translators from other areas of Afghanistan useless. The Soviets had to contend with a rebel group known as the Dawlet of eastern Nuristan. They were professing a Salafi version of Islam, and hostile to any political rivals. The Nuristanis had resisted Islam as late as the year 1895 and before that had been considered a nation of infidels with a long tradition of violently resisting outsiders, their beliefs, and their invasions. Resistance in Nuristan revolved around a specific group of Islamic fighters known as Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin or HIG. During the Soviet occupation HIG received more support from the CIA than any other Mujahideen resistance group. When it came to infiltration from Pakistan, and setting up ambushes, HIG was regarded as the most skillful. In 2006 HIG was actively resisting the Afghan government. When Captain Aaron Swain of Cherokee Co. had sounded out Afghan Border Police Commander Ahmed Shah about setting up near Kamdesh, he was told that HIG insurgents tried to blow up Shah’s jeep on his last trip there and it was a bad place.: 33–4, 50–1, 92, 98
American occupation troops in Nuristan would find themselves directly in opposition to the HIG forces prepared by the CIA to resist the Soviets. Colonel Pat Donahue, the former commander of the 3rd BCT, had believed that Nuristani population was essentially neutral, hostile to any outside groups, and so isolated that resources allocated to the region would be wasted. These resources were limited by the fact that only 5,000 American troops were available to occupy a rugged area the size of Virginia that had very little in the way of Infrastructure. A new Counter-insurgency strategy seemed to offer a way around these problems. Known as COIN and refined by General Petraeus, Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Counter-insurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 would convert the population of Nuristan to American goals in the region. Unlike Donahue, Nicholson was a supporter of COIN in addition to seeing Kamdesh as a decisive control point in the region. The basic approach to victory by the PRT would involve three steps: 1. Separate the enemy from the people. 2. Link the people to their government. 3. Transform Afghanistan by economic development and the creation of a national infrastructure. Nicholson hoped the PRT would seed a process that would be developed by the local Nuristanis rather than completely imposed from the outside. Lieutenant Keating, first commander of the Kamdesh PRT, was determined to make COIN a success in the region.:95, 26–8
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Howard, Squadron Commander, saw COIN as a process of providing three services in the Kamdesh region. Providing clean water by installing gravity fed pipelines in all the local villages, repairing the hydroelectric plants in Urmul and Kamdesh, and setting up new plants in Mirdesh and Gawardesh. New roads would be the final stage, built and maintained by local contractors, this would improve the local economy while providing improved communications with the central government and the rest of the nation. 1.33 million dollars was budgeted for these projects. This had the potential of providing a significant boost to the local economy, which in the past saw little in the way of civic improvements. Keating saw these programs as having mixed results. Villagers and clans who were left out of these projects were resentful, and quick to turn to those who would exploit the resulting divisions. Haji Yunus, a village elder of Gawardesh and contractor for an electric plant was kidnapped and murdered. A note was attached to his body which said: “Don’t work with coalition forces. This will happen to you.” The note was signed “Mullah Omar”. Omar was the top Taliban leader in Afghanistan, but U.S. Intelligence stated HIG had done the killing, giving Omar “credit” in order in instill more fear due to Omar’s greater reputation. The constant ambushes and fire fights along the road to Naray did little to relieve Keating’s doubts. “The little bastards keep shooting at us every day.”, represented Keating’s assessment of the progress of COIN in Kamdesh.:129–30 134–5, 156
After the death of Keating, and renaming COP Keating after him, a “Night Letter” appeared on the door of the Upper Kamdesh mosque on April 29 of 2007. Part of the letter stated: “At the present time for those who work and obey the American devils by taking contracts for building schools, road, and power plants: also those who work as police, district administrators, and commanders as well as sold-out mullahs who deny Allah’s orders and holy war and deny the holy Quran: We are telling you that we are continuing our holy war in Allah’s will…Soon we will start our operations.” This letter was written in Pashto and signed “Mujahideen”. The following day insurgents kidnapped and murdered Fazal Ahad, an elder from the village of Badmuk who was attempting to end the Kom/Kata tribal disagreements by arranging a meeting in Kamdesh. In response to this, the local Afghan officials sent more government troops into the area to increase security. These troops were ambushed on the Naray/Kamdesh road and shot up badly enough to prevent their arrival in Kamdesh.:215–30
The closeness of the action, and coordinated fire from both sides of the valley indicated that the attackers in this ambush were different than the groups that were using sporadic, long range, harassing fire in the past. The latest acronym for attackers used by the Americans was AAF, for anti-Afghan fighters. These AAF were more professional and probably represented groups from areas outside of Nuristan. They would be Pashtuns, who hated the Tajiks and Hazara tribes that made up the ANA, or Afghan National Army. The AAF would disguise themselves in ANA uniforms and set up fake checkpoints to extract taxes and tolls from local contractors, and allied themselves with smugglers transporting illegal timber and gems across the border into Pakistan. Urdu and Pashtun HIG warriors bringing in arms and ammunition from Pakistan would cross the border in the other direction. Their fake government check points and “taxes” would finance and complete the economic cycle and serve to finance AAF operations. On the whole the AAF was a broader based and more formidable force in 2007 than before the American invasion, and represented a significant escalation.:228, 249, 469
At the end of May, 2007, Bulldog Troop, 1-91 Cavalry Squadron, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, arrived at COP Keating. They were commanded by Captain Tom Bostick, the next leader to inherit the responsibilities associated with the Kamdesh area of operations. The first of these would be “Operation Mountain II”, and effort to extend a series of observation posts west to control the villages between COP Keating and the Afghan village of Saret Koheh. Extending control further along the Landay-Sin river would hopefully provide a counter to the expansion of AAF organization and activity in the summer of 2007. The AAF responded to this advance with a well-organized and coordinated ambush on July 26, 2007 in the river valley at Saret Koheh. The AAF forces involved fit the pattern of the improved AAF, in that they were uniformed and equipped as Afghan Army and police forces, with the latest weapons and radios issued to government Afghan forces, along with black knit ski masks to conceal their identities. They made sustained attacks over a two-day period, drawing American support forces and widespread air forces into the battle. Despite air and artillery support the American forces suffered significant losses from the enemy fire that rained down on them from both sides of the valley. Captain Thomas G. Bostick was killed by a rocket propelled grenade, along with Staff Sergeant William "Ryan" Fritsche who was killed by rifle fire. Seven other Americans and one ANA soldier were wounded.:229, 256, 263–80
The Battle of Saret Koheh made good on the threats of the “Night Letter” posted in Kamdesh beginning the campaign season of 2007. It also confronted Lieutenant Colonel Kolenda commanding American forces in the area in Naray, with the fact that COIN operations in Nuristan were facing a crisis. AAF operations in the area were expanding, involving a greater proportion of the local population, and were being supported by Taliban organizations in Pakistan. American forces were strung out in a thinly held and poorly supplied picket line from Naray to Kamdesh along the Landay-Sin River. The American forces were too outnumbered to survive in sustained combat with the local population. Something had to be done to put the Americans and the Afghans of Nuristan on the same side. The first effort in a new COIN campaign was made by First Lieutenant Dave Roller. He decided that the appearance of American soldiers in their “battle rattle” war gear gave the impression of soulless killing machines. Encased in armor, helmets, and weapons, Americans appeared to be looking for a fight. As a contrast Dave attended his next meeting with the Kamdesh village leaders dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. When he spoke to them he discussed their common values as leaders of families and communities working toward a better future for their children. Mawlawi Abdul Rahman of Kamdesh was a local elder much impressed with this new approach. He began building a consensus of village elders in support of the Afghan government. Through the rest of the summer and fall of 2008, Captain Joey Hutto, the new commander of COP Keating, and his troops expanded this initiative. Hutto had worked for years on COIN campaigns in Central America, and put his skills to good use in Nuristan.:298–304
The Hundred Man Shura
By October 2007 the elders and mullahs of the Kamdesh area had been inspired by Rahman to gather at Kamdesh for a mass meeting, or shura to plan the future of Nuristan. This series of meetings over two days involved more than 800 representatives of the people of Nuristan, and had the goal of bringing order and economic development to the region. The village leaders elected a representative council of 100 members to form a shura that would produce a regional security plan and obtain an agreement with the American military and the Afghan Karzai government. This agreement would recognize the authority of the Hundred Man Shura, and provide funds for economic development. Formalized as “The Commitment of Mutual Support” the agreement also provided the Shura would provide local security in return for an end to uninvited American military searches of local towns and mosques. From November through January 2008 members of the Shura traveled the villages of the Kamdesh area, informing the residents of the support agreement and stating that the era of holy war was over, and that local government would bring peace and prosperity. This agreement did bring down the level of combat in the Kamdesh area. In the year that followed the agreement, ANA and American deaths dropped from thirty to three.:312–14, 371
The shura began to falter by October 2008. The initiating ISAF forces of 1-91 Cavalry had returned home, replaced by 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. On October 28, the commander of COP Keating, Captain Robert J. Yllescas, was severely wounded in a targeted assassination attempt with a remotely detonated IED less than 400 meters from the outpost—he later died from his wounds. The assassin was later found in Urmul and appeared to have the assistance of one of the Afghan day laborers at Camp Keating and the acquiescence of Urmul's elders. Yllescas's charismatic relations with the Shura had supported the transition from 1-91 Cavalry to 6th Squadron, and the Shura's influence and collaboration with ISAF forces declined from this point.:363–383
COP Keating became increasingly isolated in the summer of 2009. Ground resupply became almost impossible due to the area's limited roads and the threat of insurgent attacks. Furthermore, Camp Keating's location, surrounded by mountains on three sides, exposed helicopters and the outpost's garrison to insurgent fire. Towards the end, resupply flights were limited to moonless nights when near total darkness offered some protection to helicopter crews and their craft.:327–328 The nearest attack helicopters were located in Jalalabad, a thirty-minute flight away.
OP Fritsche was established to provide overwatch for COP Keating and was manned by a mix of US and Afghan national forces. US Army soldiers at both outposts had been ordered to prepare to evacuate the outposts and had informed local Afghan leaders of their intention to do so.
Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron "Destroyers", 61st Cavalry Regiment manned COP Keating. In addition, Afghan national forces manned checkpoints and roadblocks at various locations around the area. At the time, Afghan national forces were supervised and trained by members of the Latvian Operational Mentor Liaison Teams.
The Allies planned to close COP Keating by August 2009, but the move was delayed because of other military operations in a nearby district (the search for Bowe Bergdahl). Because Keating was scheduled for closure in the near future, coalition leaders had decided not to make more than minimal efforts to improve fortifications at the base.
Coalition forces received three human-source intelligence reports sometime before the battle indicating that insurgents were planning an attack on the outposts. Because the reports had not been verified by other intelligence sources, such as electronic intelligence, the reports were discounted.
About 3:00 am on October 3, insurgents ordered all Kamdesh villagers to leave the area. At 6:00 am, the fighters opened fire from all sides of the outpost with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, immediately putting the Americans' mortar pit out of action. Observation Post Fritsche was attacked simultaneously, limiting available support from that position. Coalition forces responded with small arms fire, mortars, and by the afternoon, helicopters, heavy artillery, and airstrikes.
The attackers overran Keating's perimeter defenses about 48 minutes into the battle. Breaches occurred at a latrine area close to the perimeter wire; also the main entrance where civilian Afghan Security Guards were overwhelmed; and from the eastern side—where Afghan National Army soldiers were stationed. Despite the efforts of two Latvian military advisors, who tried to convince the Afghan National Army forces not to flee, the Afghan defenders quickly broke and ran. US soldiers reported that none of the Afghan soldiers held their ground. During and after the battle, some of the Afghan soldiers stole items, including digital cameras and protein drinks, belonging to American soldiers at the base.
Once inside, the attackers set fire to the base, burning down most of the barracks. Within the first hour, the American defenders had collapsed to a tight internal perimeter, centered on the two buildings that were not burning. Regrouping there, they pushed out teams to retake much of the outpost. They expanded the perimeter all the way back to the entry control point and to the buildings on the western edge of the outpost, which became their final fighting position. US air support directed by Sgt. Armando Avalos and Sgt. Jayson Souter, including attack helicopters, A-10s, a B-1 bomber, and F-15 fighters, destroyed the local mosque, where much of the insurgents' heaviest fire originated. Once OP Fritsche soldiers gained control of their mortar pit, Sgt. Avalos began directing indirect support to help the defense of COP Keating. Two USAF F-15E fighter bombers circled overhead, led by Captain Mike Polidor, for almost eight hours, helping coordinate airstrikes by 19 other aircraft.
The insurgents began to retreat later in the day. Quick reaction forces from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment did not reach the outpost until 7:00 pm that day, while insurgents remained in parts of the outpost as late as 5:10 pm. Relief may have been slow in reaching COP Keating due to bad weather.
Eight US soldiers were killed and 27 wounded; eight Afghan soldiers were wounded, along with two Afghan private security guards. The US military estimated that 150 Taliban militants were also killed as a result of repulsing the assault. The US soldiers killed in the battle were: Justin T. Gallegos (Tucson, Arizona), Christopher Griffin (Kincheloe, Michigan), Kevin C. Thomson (Reno, Nevada), Michael P. Scusa (Villas, New Jersey), Vernon W. Martin (Savannah, Georgia), Stephan L. Mace (Lovettsville, Virginia), Joshua J. Kirk (South Portland, Maine), and Joshua M. Hardt (Applegate, California).
The outpost was evacuated two days later, and bombed on October 6 by a B-1 bomber to prevent insurgents from looting the munitions abandoned in the hasty withdrawal. American forces had already planned to pull out of the area as part of a plan to move forces to more densely populated areas, so closure of the base was imminent when the attack occurred. The attack accelerated those plans, with the troops' departure taking place so quickly after the battle that some munitions were abandoned. "The outpost’s depot was promptly looted by the insurgents and bombed by American planes in an effort to destroy the lethal munitions left behind."
On October 5 and 6, Coalition troops conducted operations in the area in an attempt to locate and destroy the Taliban forces responsible for the attack on the outposts. Another 10 Afghan soldiers and 4 Taliban were killed during these operations.
Following the battle, the US Central Command conducted an investigation on what had occurred, led by US Army General Guy Swan. The report, released to the public in June 2011, concluded "inadequate measures taken by the chain of command" facilitated the attack, but praised the troops fighting at the base for repulsing the attack "with conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery." Four US Army officers, a captain, a major, a lieutenant colonel, and a colonel, who oversaw COP Keating were admonished or reprimanded for command failures. In the report released to the public, the US Army concealed the names of the four disciplined officers.
Twenty-seven soldiers were awarded the Purple Hearts, 37 received the Army Commendation Medals with "V" device for valor, three were awarded the Bronze Star, and received the 18 Bronze Stars with "V" devices. Nine were awarded the Silver Star.
The flight crews of three United States Army AH-64D Apaches were later decorated for actions during the battle. Captain Matthew Kaplan, CW3 Ross Lewallen, CW3 Randy Huff, CW2 Gary Wingert, CW2 Chad Bardwell, and CW2 Chris Wright were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for conducting close combat attacks on the Taliban during the battle.
Medals of Honor
On February 11, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha, a survivor of the battle. He became the fourth surviving soldier from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to be awarded the Medal of Honor due to the courageous nature of his actions during the battle.
Staff Sergeant Ty Carter, formerly a Marine prior to joining the U.S. Army, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions during the Battle of Kamdesh. The ceremony took place on August 26, 2013. The Battle of Kamdesh was thus the first battle for which two living Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor since the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963.
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