On the Afghan border with Pakistan, in Paktika province, is a tiny, isolated and primitive American outpost called Combat Outpost, or COP, Margah. What happened there last fall never penetrated mainstream consciousness, but on Oct. 30, American forces were surprised by a wee-hours attack by hundreds of unusually sophisticated fighters who were “armed to the teeth and shouting ‘Allah Akbar.'” Or so David Axe reported, quite vividly, in Wired magazine, the lone outlet to cover the battle.
It took 12 apocalyptic hours, but the insurgents were successfully repelled. Of course, this wasn’t the first time this outpost in eastern Afghanistan or its defenders were attacked. Others have even occurred during U.S. missions into town to “show our faces,” as one soldier put it, one of the riskier (stupider) tactics of counterinsurgency, or COIN.
But on that October night, “one of the biggest localized fights” of the decade-long Afghanistan war took place and no one noticed, not even after Gen. David Petraeus called the outpost’s battle to save itself from being overrun “one for the history books.”
Maybe the omission is connected to the fact that Petraeus didn’t also speak of the great national purpose for which these valorous soldiers had just risked life and limb. And maybe that omission is connected to the fact that there wasn’t any. There weren’t any American deaths at the Battle of Margah, either, and maybe that fact, for the military, is part of what makes it so memorable.
This wasn’t the case at COP Keating in October 2009, when 300 Taliban fighters breached a similarly tiny and isolated outpost near Kamdesh, also in eastern Afghanistan. In that earlier battle, eight Americans were killed. The year before that, in July 2008, nine Americans were killed when 200 insurgents penetrated the tiny and isolated outpost of COP Wanat, also in eastern Afghanistan. Such casualties are the unreckoned costs of COIN, and the top COINdinistas who inserted these mini U.S. outposts like pins in a map deep in hostile territory have never had to answer for them.
What a way to win Afghan “hearts and minds” – or so they thought. These remote outposts, the on-paper theory went, would serve as American welcome wagons among the misogynists, pederasts, polygamists and even secret jihadists who are the relentless objects of affection in “population-centric” COIN. Incredibly, this same, exact COIN mission still holds, nearly a decade after it got its start and long after Keating and Wanat closed down.
COP Margah, for one, remains open for battle.
Incoming jihadi fire is increasing greatly, at least compared with recent months. Recently, insurgents tried to breach the perimeter fence – probing defenses, no doubt. It is now, right now, that COP Margah should be on the worry meter for Americans. This U.S outpost in the Wild East of Afghanistan sounds all too much like another COP Keating or Wanat just waiting to happen.
And the U.S. military knows it. In April 2011, Long War Journal reported on a visit by David Axe to COP Margah, where he learned that insurgents based in Waziristan, Pakistan, “train fighters in indirect fire, using the COP as a target.” If the insurgents use COP Margah as a shooting gallery, I conclude this makes our men there sitting ducks.
Army 1st Lt. Jason Wright further explained: “The Waziristan Agency (tribal government), they have a handbook … almost exactly like our Ranger handbook that goes over advanced infantry tactics and small unit ambush raids, that sort of thing. (In a captured copy of the book) they had drawings of the COP and the OP, measurements, distances, all that sort of thing, and it was pretty high-speed stuff for them. You wouldn’t think they’d have anything like that, but they did.”
Now remind me again: If jihadists use COP Margah as a shooting gallery, what does Uncle Sam use it for? For what national purpose is the U.S government ordering troops to risk death to defend a chunk of Afghan terrain near Pakistan? Shouldn’t Afghans be defending their own terrain – if they even want to? Shouldn’t someone in Congress, or maybe an extra-brave GOP presidential candidate, raise the question? Too bad for the troops, but these leaders seem as disinterested as the rest of us.