Indomitable spirit: Battle of Kamdesh, remembered
The Battle of Kamdesh stands as a harrowing testament to the valor and sacrifice of American soldiers amid the rugged landscapes of Afghanistan. Nestled within the restless Nuristan Province, Kamdesh was home to Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, a remote outpost surrounded by towering mountains and treacherous terrain. This fateful encounter would define the indomitable spirit of those who faced overwhelming odds.
Kamdesh's crucial role
In 2006, the Kamdesh region gained strategic importance as Allied commanders sought to disrupt the anti-coalition militia's access to crucial supply lines between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Provincial reconstruction team (PRT) bases extended into Nuristan, a remote Afghan province. The goal here was to establish government control and credibility. Colonel John W. Nicholson Jr., leading the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, recognized Kamdesh's significance due to its position at the convergence of three valleys from the Pakistan border. This junction, coupled with local leadership, inspired the establishment of the Nuristan PRT base.
Governor Tamim Nuristani's endorsement further supported the base's creation. The camp was constructed by 3-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division. Later, it was named Camp Keating in honor of Executive Officer Benjamin Keating, who fell in combat south of the camp in November 2006.
The region had seen limited U.S. forces presence, mainly through Special Operations, until 3-71 Cavalry took charge. Intense fighting in the region eventually meant the camp transitioned from its PRT designation. Over time, Camp Keating stood as a fire base, enduring numerous attacks while executing successful combat missions in the vicinity.
The Kamdesh village, nestled in the lofty Hindu Kush mountain range, featured steep slopes and narrow valleys defined by swift rivers and granite boulders. The region's volatile climate ranges from hot summers to cold, snow-covered winters. In turn, this made travel and daily life difficult. During the course of the war, the Kamdesh area was seen as critical to help disrupt anti-coalition militia's supply lines between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Operation Deep Strike, launched in May 2006, saw a re-deployment to Kamdesh. Once again, service members found themselves facing familiar difficulties. Namely, the area's treacherous terrain hampered movements and posed constant challenges. The base's footprint was less than ideal. A boulder in the site's center prevented helicopter landings, and an alternative landing zone across the river had a rocky terrain and encircled mountains, hindering effective defense.
Kamdesh's insurgency backdrop was intricately tied to the region's distinct population. Nuristan's ethnic divisions fueled conflicts over water rights, pasture, and religious beliefs among the Kom, Kata, Kushtoz, and Kalasha groups. Language diversity complicated matters, as translation barriers hindered communication. The Nuristanis' history of resistance, from opposing Islam in 1895 to their past as a Hindu nation, painted a picture of deep-rooted defiance against outsiders. This cultural fabric added complexity to the insurgency landscape played out within Kamdesh's rugged terrain.
Camp Keating's deterioration
During the summer of 2009, Camp Keating found itself increasingly isolated. The terrain's limited roads and insurgent threats made ground resupply nearly impossible. Situated amidst encircling mountains, the camp's position exposed it to insurgent fire, even during helicopter flights for resupply. As conditions worsened, resupply flights were restricted to moonless nights to mitigate the risk. Complicating matters, the nearest attack helicopters were a 30-minute flight away in Jalalabad.
Overwatch Post (OP) Fritsche established a joint contingent of U.S. and Afghan national forces to bolster the defense of Camp Keating. Afghan leaders received evacuation plans. The outpost's garrison prepared for the eventual closure of both COP Keating and OP Fritsche. While waiting for it to close, Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron "Destroyers," 61st Cavalry Regiment manned COP Keating. Afghan national forces supervised checkpoints and roadblocks. Members of the Latvian Operational Mentor Liaison Teams were there with them, too.
COP Keating was slated for closure in August 2009. But ongoing military operations in a neighboring district delayed the shutdown. With its impending closure, there was very little fortification investment. When the COP received human-source intelligence reports that indicated an impending attack, it was nearly dismissed due to a lack of corroborating evidence. This decision proved to be fateful.
At around 3:00 a.m. on October 3, over 350 Taliban-backed insurgents ordered Kamdesh villagers to evacuate, setting the stage for a pivotal battle. The attack commenced at 6:00 a.m., with insurgents launching mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire from all sides of the outpost. The assault immediately disabled the American mortar pit. Within minutes, the first American service member died. Simultaneously, Observation Post Fritsche came under attack, limiting available support.
About 48 minutes into the battle, the attackers breached Keating's perimeter defenses, exploiting vulnerabilities at multiple points. Breaches occurred at the latrine area, the main entrance guarded by Afghan security personnel, and the eastern side defended by Afghan National Army soldiers. Despite the efforts of two Latvian military advisors, Afghan defenders broke and fled. The Afghan soldiers failed to hold their ground, even looting items from American soldiers during and after the battle. The attackers penetrated the base, setting fire to most of the barracks.
Defense and air support
Amidst the chaos, American and Latvian defenders regrouped within a tight internal perimeter around unburned buildings. They launched counterattacks to retake key areas, expanding the perimeter toward the entry control point and western buildings. U.S. air support targeted insurgent positions and destroyed the local mosque, a source of intense enemy fire. As the soldiers of OP Fritsche gained control of their mortar pit, they directed support to defend COP Keating.
As the day progressed, insurgents began to retreat. Quick reaction forces (QRF) from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment quickly reached the outpost, encountering remaining insurgents within the outpost for several hours. Relief efforts were hindered by terrain and aircraft availability. Members of the QRF were air lifted to OP Fritsche, then descended on foot to COP Keating. On their descent, they encountered an ambush resulting in enemy casualties. Once inside the outpost, they confirmed the death of a missing soldier and repelled follow-up attacks attempted by Taliban forces. U.S. aircraft played a crucial role in thwarting these subsequent assaults.
Bravery amid chaos
Within the compact confines of COP Keating, American soldiers fiercely contested the enemy onslaught. Under the leadership of Captain Robert Yllescas and Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha, they orchestrated a desperate yet valiant defense. Braving a ceaseless barrage of gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars, the defenders stood united against the onslaught.
The heart of the resistance lay with "Red Platoon," a group of gallant soldiers who defiantly held their ground against relentless assaults. Amid the chaos, Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha emerged as an embodiment of courage, rallying his comrades and orchestrating counterattacks that inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy.
The battle reached a pivotal juncture when a machine gun position manned by Specialist Ty Carter and Sergeant Bradley Larson came under particularly ferocious assault. In the face of overwhelming odds, Carter and Larson displayed extraordinary valor, thwarting the enemy onslaught while sustaining injuries. Their actions not only stemmed the tide of the attack but also provided a glimmer of hope amidst the chaos.
A costly triumph
The battle inflicted heavy casualties on both sides. Eight U.S. soldiers lost their lives. Another 27 sustained injuries, along with eight Afghan soldiers and two Afghan private security guards. The U.S. military estimated that around 150 Taliban insurgents were killed in the aftermath of the repulsed assault.
The attack expedited these plans because American forces were planning to withdraw from the area as part of a broader strategic shift. The base's closure was imminent, and the hasty exit resulted in some abandoned munitions. The insurgents looted the depot and attempted to destroy the remaining munitions through a B-1 bomber strike on October 6.
Following the attack, Coalition troops launched operations on October 5 and 6 to locate and eliminate the Taliban forces responsible for the assault. During these operations, an additional 10 Afghan soldiers and several Taliban insurgents were killed.
In the aftermath of the battle, the U.S. Central Command initiated an investigation led by U.S. Army General Guy Swan. The investigation report, made public in June 2011, highlighted "inadequate measures taken by the chain of command" that contributed to the attack. The report led to admonishments and reprimands for four U.S. Army officers while commending the efforts of those who helped keep service members safe.
Reflecting on sacrifice
In the aftermath of the Battle of Kamdesh, the human toll was sobering. Eight American soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, while more than 20 were wounded. The valor displayed by these men, however, was immeasurable. The battle's legacy resonates as a testament to the fierce determination of American forces and a stark reminder of the challenges faced in asymmetric warfare.