Command Outpost (COP) Spera is located 800 meters from the border with Pakistan in Afghanistan’s Khost province. The platoon section that occupies the COP can only come and go by helicopter and they have no vehicles based here. As the lieutenant in charge explains, “all we got here is our legs and as you can see everything is higher than us.”
One of the peaks that occupies the high ground around the COP is code named “New York” and another, “the Taliban Hotel”, but the coalition’s enemy here is not actually the Taliban but rather the Haqqani network who, although allied with the Taliban, retain their own identity and considerable influence in the Khost border region and beyond, emanating from their power base at Miran Shah on the Pakistan side. Set up in 2003 and originally used as a Special Forces base, the COP was handed over to regular United States army units in 2005 with the intention of controlling insurgent infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Within my first five minutes on the base the lieutenant has compared the well-established infiltration routes that the insurgents use on a seasonal basis to the Ho Chi Minh trail, an apt analogy given that cutting supply lines of insurgent support now in Pakistan has proved little more successful than it did decades ago in Vietnam.
In fairness, the border traverses a vast and barren mountain range; since Spera is the only COP for miles along the frontier it is hardly surprising that the insurgents have simply changed their routes.
As one officer put it, “They just walk around the COP.”Another confided that “[COP Spera] is kind of a stupid base to have; the enemy attack it simply because it’s there but it doesn’t really serve a purpose.”
With this in mind, requests have been made at the brigade level to have the COP closed down but the US military sees it as a delicate subject, given how such a move could play into the propaganda war: the US would say it was a strategic withdrawal while the Haqqani network and the broader Taliban would claim to have forced the Americans out. This is perhaps why the Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will have to sign off on shutting Spera down.
You might have thought that the difficulty of controlling borders had been understood following the experience of insurgent infiltrations from Syria to Iraq, not to mention the problems that the US has on its own border with Mexico, or for that matter Europe has with human trafficking from the East and Africa. But the situation here is particularly complex.
The coalition would like to see Pakistan do more to secure the border but Pakistan is a volatile ally with mixed motivations. It has long been accused of attempting to destabilize Afghanistan, thereby mitigating the risk of being sandwiched between two potentially aggressive neighbors, while at the same time maintaining what they think of as “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in the worst case scenario of an Indian land invasion.
Whatever the decision on the closure, those who might be saddest to see it go are, strangely, the very soldiers who are based there and endure regular attacks and mortar shelling roughly twice per week. While I was there, the call “incoming” woke me from a brief afternoon nap as the mortar rounds were detected by radar, giving a few precious seconds to grab body armor and take cover. I’m not suggesting that anybody likes being fired at but the soldiers I spoke to all said they enjoyed their deployment. A public affairs officer put it this way: “At Spera they’re actually doing the job they signed up to do, not stuck in a TOC (Tactical Operations Centre) staring at a computer screen.”
It must be said that the atmosphere at Spera is one of close camaraderie. One Lieutenant said, “Here the guy to your left or right is your security — your survival depends on him.” It’s also true that the closer you are to the war, the more some of the rules break down. As one of the younger enlisted soldiers told me, “When I leave here I gotta go back to that bullshit saluting.”
ADAM PLETTS is a freelance journalist currently embedded with coalition
forces in Afghanistan.