The End of COP Spera?

February 8, 2011

Combat Outpost (COP) Spera is located 800 metres from the Pakistan border in Afghanistan’s Khost province. The platoon section that occupies the COP can only come and go by helicopter as they have no vehicles based here. As the Lieutenant in charge explains “all we’ve 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.

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[The view over COP Spera towards the area nick-named the "Taliban Hotel" by the soldiers based at Spera. Pakistan lies just over the hill line.]

Set up in 2003 and originally used as a Special Forces base, the COP was handed over to regular U.S. 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 Min trail, a comparison which is perhaps more apt than it first seems because stopping the infiltration from Pakistan has proved little more successful than ending the supply from the north was in Vietnam.

In fairness, the border traverses a vast and barren mountain range and 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 “[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 U.S. military sees it as a delicate subject in the inevitable propaganda war that would ensue if it is closed; on the one hand the US claiming that they pulled out strategically and on the other the Haqqani network and the broader Taliban claiming that they forced them out, which is perhaps why the approving signature will have to come from General Petraeus’ pen.

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 U.S. 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. The problem, however, is that Pakistan is a volatile ally with mixed motivations and has long been accused of attempting to destabilise Afghanistan, thereby mitigating any risk of being sandwiched between two potentially aggressive neighbours 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.

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[Dashing for shelter following the alert of incoming mortar shells]

Whatever the decision on the closure, those who would be saddest to see it go are, strangely, the very soldiers who are based there and endure regular attacks and mortar shelling roughly twice a 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 your body armour and take cover. Now 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”.

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[Returning fire following incoming rounds from insurgents based over the Pakistan border]

It must be said the atmosphere at Spera was one of close comradery and the lieutenant made the point that “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”.

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[US Soldiers relax in COP Spera’s communal area, resembling something like a log cabin with an open fire place and a Christmas tree in the background – this was late December]

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[The “Doc” deals with an in-grown toe nail]

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[It’s common practice for the Afghan soldiers to stick pictures of singers, actresses or family members on the butts of their rifles]

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[I heard a story that the Afghan Soldiers based at Spera once made a purchase of Marijuana from a local farmer who then disappeared with their money. Months later the same guy turned up on their door step and to his surprise they remembered who he was and preceded to bury him naked and neck high a few metres away from the nearest dirt road – you can judge weather that story has anything to do with this picture!]

Parts of this entry were published in Executive Magazine