COMBAT OUTPOST ZORMAT, Afghanistan -– Leaving Salerno, I asked someone what he knew about Zormat, an area in southwestern Paktia Province to the west of the large Khost-Province base where I was heading. He responded immediately: “Lotta IEDs.” Someone else asked me if I was a reporter. I said I was. “Aw, man,” he said. “We always get mortared when the reporters come around.”
As it turns out, this tiny, austere base in Paktia hasn’t been mortared recently, thanks to protective measures taken by its residents, Alpha Company, the 1-161 Cavalry from Ft. Cambell. But the IED threat is no exaggeration. Since May, insurgents have planted the homemade bombs all throughout the few roads in the area. The company’s response, following the wheat harvest, has been to avoid the roads as much as possible. While soldiers will face occasional indirect fire, after May 10, 2008 – more on that day later – the insurgents primarily target Alpha Company through IEDs, not shootouts.
Zormat is a challenging environment for the company. Alpha Company has responsibility for a 30 kilometer-by-60 kilometer slice of Paktia, sharing space with an illiterate, agronomy-dependent population almost entirely cut off from modernity. According to members of the company, tribal law is the rule – there are easily ten tribes in the area, including at least one nomadic tribe, and the company isn’t sure how large the population exactly is in its area of operations – and the people here think in terms of conditions in their immediate surroundings. Notables at the weekly shura, or council, seek to deliver schools and clinics in their villages even if there’s another clinic just up the road. “Immediate gratification” is a term company members used to describe the locals’ mindset.
About half the people here were born in Pakistan, said the commander of Alpha Company’s 1st Platoon, Lt. N. Blaine Cooper. Cooper — a tall, broad-shouldered, and mustachioed 25-year old native of Tulsa who favors wrap-around shades – said the attitudes of people here toward the Taliban and the U.S. varies, with one town saying security is “great,” while the next one is “hesitant to talk [to the company] because they’re afraid of who’s listening.” The Taliban’s activities in the towns consist largely of intimidation, demanding food and quartering from the populace, while spreading money around to plant IEDs. Zormat sits atop a route for insurgent infiltration running north from Pakistan through Paktika Province in the south; seeking to cut off Khost Province to the east; and hoping to run all the way up to Kabul. As a result, the company sees Taliban commanders coming from outside of the area and hiring locals as foot soldiers. The platoon sergeant, Forrest Robertson, a gung-ho 30-year old from Wamego, Kan., describes as the typical Taliban soldier as “a local, a farm kid” with strong religious sensibilities.
Southwestern Paktia is greener and more fertile than much of Afghanistan, but the locals aren’t interested in bringing their harvests to market. Befitting the immediate-gratification ethic here, subsistence agriculture is the rule, with relatively poor hydrology effectively preventing large-scale farming even if an enterprising farmer decided to expand.
The Taliban has used the destitution of the area to its advantage. Locals typically tell the company that “when the Taliban was in control, prices were lower, crops were better, the economy was better,” Cooper said. Indeed, six weeks ago, Cooper’s platoon, which calls itself the Hooligans, distributed humanitarian aid – beans, rice, blankets, radios, school supplies, cooking oil and the like – to a city called Tatanak about 7 kilometers to the north. A few hours after the Hooligans left, the Taliban burned the haul. The following week, when Cooper’s soldiers returned with another load of goods, “the people refused to take it,” he said. If the villagers perceive a link between their scarcity and the Taliban’s destruction of aid supplies, it’s not apparent to Alpha Company.