On a high plain in the Paktika province of Afghanistan, sits a remote outpost known to many simply as Firebase Shkin. In the early days of the War in Afghanistan, it was a hotspot of insurgent activity. According to Col. Rodney Davis, by 2003 Shkin was known as “the evilest place in Afghanistan.”
The firebase, looking like a cross between an old Wild West fort and the Alamo, sat right on the border in the middle of a major infiltration route for the Taliban from Pakistan. Contact was inevitable. Making matters more difficult was the ambiguous loyalty of the Pakistani Border Guards and armed forces in the area. The remote location meant that help was a long way off if things took a turn for the worse. Finally, the high elevation, 7,700 feet, meant every patrol was grueling.
Patrols wound through wadis and mountain passes on dirt tracks with names like Route Saturn, Chevy, and Camaro. Friendly Afghan Militia Forces inhabited adjoining buildings and ran the dreaded South Camp – a captured insurgent’s worst nightmare.
The base had first housed Special Forces soldiers and Rangers before being handed over to conventional forces from the 82nd Airborne Division, part of Task Force Panther, in 2002. The first casualty from the 82nd in the War on Terror was incurred here on December 20, 2002 when Sgt. Checo, assigned to D Company, 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), was killed in action. The firebase was often unofficially referred to as Firebase Checo in his honor.
Task Force Panther was relieved by Task Force Devil in January 2003. The elements of Task Force Devil, particularly those operating out of Firebase Shkin, were essential in establishing the tactics and standards of conventional forces operating in low-intensity conflicts. This information would be used to great effect as the war in Afghanistan grew and more troops came into the country. For the soldiers of Task Force Devil—and those that followed—these were lessons learned the hard way.
In April 2003, a contingent centered on elements of B Company 3rd Battalion 504th PIR, supported by gun trucks from D Company as well as artillery and other support, took control of the firebase. Contact began almost immediately. On April 25, a quick reaction force from the firebase was ambushed by Al Qaeda fighters. Using a reverse-slope ambush, a technique taught to them during their war against Russia, the Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) inflicted significant casualties on the firebase’s most recent inhabitants.
Two Americans were killed in the exchange and several others wounded, including the company commander, a platoon sergeant, and a forward observer. One of the soldiers killed was Jerod Dennis from B Company. The airfield at Orgun-e would later be named Dennis Army Airfield in his honor. The site of the battle, Losano Ridge, took its name from an Air Force Tactical Air Controller, Raymond Losano, who was also killed that day. However, the paratroopers gave better than they got sending the Al Qaeda fighters back across the border into Pakistan with heavy casualties.
The fight was further complicated by its proximity to the border and the fact that it happened in plain view of Pakistani outposts there. The response from the Pakistani side was to deliberately block and draw weapons on the American quick reaction force that was attempting to cut off the fleeing ACM fighters.
The soldiers of Firebase Shkin continued to engage the ACM and expand on their doctrine throughout the summer of 2003. As their commander, Capt. Dave Buffaloe, put it, “I was given an opportunity that no other captain in the Army was given: to fight his own combined-arms, coalition, joint, multi-agency fight in his own Area of Operations.” Ambushes were frequent and the operations tempo was demanding, especially as there were only six dismounted infantry squads at the time.
By the end of the summer, Task Force Devil began rotating out of the border firebases and handing over responsibility to the incoming 10th Mountain Division task force. For the soldiers of 1st Battalion 87th Infantry that meant it was their turn at Firebase Shkin.
Though contact had tapered off towards the end of the paratroopers’ tour, the ACM came back hard to test the new unit in the area. On August 31, 2003 the task force lost its first soldiers of the tour in a large scale firefight with Anti-Coalition forces. In September Afghanistan’s most intense combat in 18 months claimed the life of another soldier, Evan O’Neill, in a firefight around Shkin. The attack was more sophisticated than earlier Al Qaeda attempts against the American soldiers. This attack involved mortar rounds and what seemed to be an attempt to down an American helicopter. The whole fight, once again, took place within view of the Pakistani Border Guards, who did nothing to aid America or its allies.
The soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division would continue to battle against insurgents in the lonely reaches of Shkin, Afghanistan before they themselves were relieved. The tenacity of the American soldiers at Firebase Shkin would bring relative quiet to the area. Eventually Firebase Shkin would be overshadowed by places like the Korengal Valley and fighting such as the Battle of Wanat. But those who served there in the early days of the war will always remember the hell that was the evilest place in Afghanistan – Firebase Shkin.