Wednesday, May 15, 2019

COP Keating Afghan: Enemy hammer falls, 2009

When you go through this story, you will wonder how our forces coped with the enemy, and how they managed to get out alive, and you will applaud their valor. You'll also learn something of what our forces endured in the days of heavy fighting in Afghanistan, some of which they endure to this day. You may finish by wondering what our forces were doing at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BNCT) of the 10th Mountain Division deployed to the mountainous and high threat region of the Afghanistan border with Pakistan in February 2006, along with US Marines and Afghan National Army (ANA forces). This was the 10th Mountain's first deployment to this area. 

Special Forces had operated in these desolate areas, but US conventional forces had not. This was a bold move into what was a thoroughfare for insurgent supply and drug runs and force movements in and out of Pakistan. This graphic shows the major infiltration routes into northeastern Afghanistan.

Colonel “Mick” Nicholson commanded the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd BCT “Spartans” at the time. He positioned two US battalions in adjacent northeast provinces of Afghanistan. They were the 1-32 Infantry (750 men) and 1-35 Cavalry (500 men). These units were dispersed in company and platoon size detachments along the rivers and in a few remote mountain valleys.

The 10th Mountain launched Operation “Mountain Lion” focused on the Korengal Valley in Kunar Province, known as "The Valley of Death." 

The operation was part of an effort to set up American forward operating bases in the northeast, a region that had not seen many US or ANA forces. The extremely rough terrain made travel up here very difficult. On a map, this is a fairly compact neighborhood, and a nasty neighborhood as well.

 “Operation Mountain Lion” enabled the US to set up a base in Kamdesh, Nuristan in August 2006. It was called Combat Outpost (COP) Kamdesh after the nearby town. The northeast Nurestan Province a very tough neighborhood.
The Kamdesh base name was changed to COP Keating in honor of Captain Benjamin Keating (left), USA, A/3-71st Cav, Task Force Spartan, killed at Forward Operating Base (FOB Naray) on November 26, 2006. There was an Observation Post (OP) on a hill above Keating. It was named OP Fritsche. It was named after SSgt. William Fritsche (right), USA, 1-91st Cav, 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was killed on July 29, 2007. 

On July 20, 2006, CH-47 Chinooks airlifted the entire C/3-71 Cav and one platoon from A/3-71 Cav into a cornfield near Kamdesh and constructed COP Keating. Once done, A/3-71 remained behind to man the COP. COP Keating and OP Fritsche were set up at about the same time. 

COP Keating was surrounded on three sides by mountains and inhabited by American forces not enthusiastically welcomed by the locals. Many have described the COP as sitting in a “fishbowl.” High ground overlooked the road to the base, making traffic vulnerable to ambush virtually at any time. Most supplies were brought in by helicopter which in turn were vulnerable to hostile fire from the high ground.

Fritsche was a platoon-sized OP about 2.2 kms or 1.3 miles straight-line distance from COP Keating. However, they were not in line-of-sight of each other. The OP was at a much higher elevation but was still vulnerable to higher elevations nearby.
The OP observed insurgent activity on the ground below, provided indirect fire support to COP Keating using its own 120 mm mortars, and provided logistics support to the COP.
The original intent was to use Keating as a place where military and civilian provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) could help the locals. The idea was to emphasize the counter-insurgency (COIN) mission up here as a way to combat insurgency. There was always a tug between mission: COIN or counter-terrorism. COIN was hoped to
win hearts and minds of the population, while counter-terrorism was designed to hunt down and destroy terrorists-insurgents.

But the COIN idea was not working not work. The area was too hostile. COP Keating was placed near where several river valley systems from Pakistan converged. Two rivers, the Landay-Sin and Darreh Ye Kushtoz, converged right where COP Keating was placed. You can empathize with the "fishbowl" feeling among the troops.

Seth Jones reviewed the book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, written by Jake Tapper. Jones said:

“Soldiers from 3-71 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division (Lt. Colonel Michael Howard, USA in command) constructed (COP Keating) in the summer of 2006. COP Keating has the feel of a U.S. Army fort in the American West in the 1800s — spartan, isolated and utterly exposed … From the beginning, some U.S. soldiers questioned the wisdom of building an outpost at the base of a mountain peak where insurgents could shoot down into it.”

An estimated 30 insurgents attacked COP Keating from three directions on August 9, 2006. The battle lasted two hours and was described as ferocious. Neighboring units could not quickly reinforce the camp. Apache attack helicopters were located at Jalalabad, about 90 miles to the southwest, more than a 30 minute flight. Chinooks were scarce and in high demand throughout this mountainous region. Air support was always hounded by bad weather. That said, it took air support to repel the attack, dropping 500 lb. bombs on the insurgents.

At that time, there were hundreds of soldiers there who returned fire with mortars and small arms. C.J. Chivers, reporting “Strategic Plans Spawned Bitter End for a Lonely Outpost” for the New York Times, commented:

“The outpost’s troops were charged with finding allies among local residents and connecting them to the central government in Kabul, stopping illegal cross-border movement and deterring the insurgency … There were so few troops that the outpost, like others of its kind, could barely defend its bunkers and patrol at the same time, much less disrupt a growing insurgency.

“But the outpost’s fate, chronicled in unusually detailed glimpses of a base over nearly three years, illustrates many of the frustrations of the allied effort: low troop levels, unreliable Afghan partners and an insurgency that has grown in skill, determination and its ability to menace … The area, near the border with Pakistan, was suspected of being an insurgent corridor.”

The insurgent approach to COP Keating for several years was to attack weekly. The attacks might last just a few minutes or go for an hour or so.

Convoys from nearby stations were frequently ambushed and the roads fell victim to heavy rains. Several instances of this occurred in 2007. On February 17, 2007, three convoy trucks were ambushed. The insurgents let the contract drivers live, though one was injured by shrapnel. The insurgents cut off the ears of the other driver. On April 29, 2007, insurgents posted letters in the mosques chastising anyone who was helping the American infidels, and listing those Afghans who worked at the COP as security guards.

The reality was COP Keating was indefensible and extremely difficult to resupply. Fighting between US forces and the Taliban became intense against Keating and other bases starting in 2008.
In the summer of 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, USA, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, felt it futile to spread small numbers of forces to so many remote outposts and ordered they be closed in favor of concentrating troops in more populated locations. A Ministry of the Interior map of August 2009 showed much of Keating's region under complete enemy control.

COP Keating and OP Fritsche were scheduled to be closed. However there were delays. The San Diego Union-Tribune noted an AP report by Richard Lardner that said:

“Keating’s closure was delayed after equipment and supplies needed to move the troops and their equipment were diverted to support operations in another area.”

The Military Times was a bit more specific, saying:

“The withdrawal was delayed when the assets required to move base supplies were diverted to support ‘intense brigade-level operations’ in Barge-e-Matal, also (in eastern) Nuristan Province.”

B/3-61st Cavalry relieved the 1-91st Cav troops in May 2009. Some Latvian troops were also there to work with the ANA and US force. These units experienced over 45 engagements with the enemy since assuming responsibility between then and October.

On October 3, 2009, the hammer fell on COP Keating and OP Fritsche.

The Taliban employed about 300 - 400 fighters and assaulted both locations from five points in the mountains. The men at Keating and Fritsche had only about 15 minutes warning. Only 53 soldiers from B/3-61st Cavalry and 20 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops occupied Keating. There were 19 B/3-61 troops and 10 ANA soldiers at Fritsche.

The Taliban timed their attacks to coincide roughly with the planned closure of both outposts. They  attacked COP Keating and OP Fritsche at about the same time. Fritsche was not able to provide Keating with fire support. Its men had to defend themselves from this separate attack. However, they managed to defeat the enemy attack and then provided indirect fire support to Keating following that.

The US soldiers fought fiercely and received close air support from USAF F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Viper, A-10 Warthog close air support (CAS) fighters, a B-1 Lancer bomber, an AC-130 gunship, and Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Furthermore, Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk surveillance aircraft helped out. 

Two Apache helicopters were hit, one had to return to base while the other was able to continue in the fight. Then a third Apache was hit and had to return to base as well.

After a weather delay, helicopters brought in a quick reaction force (QRF) and inserted it at Fritsche. It then proceeded downhill to Keating. After a tough trek downhill the QRF spotted the enemy firing from the slope, and called in A-10 Warthogs. Together they destroyed the enemy there.
The QRF reached Keating about 13 hours after the attacks began. Medevac helicopters were finally able to get in to extract the wounded. The last medevac aircraft left Keating about 16 hours after the attack started.

Nine US soldiers were killed in action including one who died from his wounds after the battle. Twenty three more were wounded though 20 were able to return to duty. One ANA soldier was killed with nine wounded. Keating was virtually destroyed.

SFC Jonathan Hill, a platoon first sergeant, asked rhetorically:

“Why did we make it through that day? It couldn’t have gone any worse. The only thing worse than what we went through is if somebody would have dropped a nuclear warhead and we were ground zero. What we went through and how we escaped death is beyond me.”

SFC Hill would receive the Silver Star for his valor in this attack.

Two soldiers in the battle received the Medal of Honor for their valor in this battle: Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha (left), USA, and Staff Sgt. Ty Carter (right). The U.S. Army Joint Training Counter IED Operations Integration Center, (JTCOIC) produced a video re-creation of the attack against Keating and Fritsche, entitled, “Complex Attack on COP Keating." I thought this re-creation was extremely well done and commend it to you. I used it to assemble the summary of this attack just provided.

The US abandoned COB Keating two days after the battle. However, they were not able to take all their ammunition with them, so USAF aircraft bombed the site, three days after the battle.

Lt. General Guy Swan, USA lauded the soldiers of B/3-61st Cav for their actions. He wrote:

"[The soldiers] repelled an enemy force of 300 Anti-Afghan fighters, preserving their combat outpost and killing approximately 150 of the enemy fighters … The soldiers distinguished themselves with conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery under the heavy enemy fire that surrounded them.”

However, several officers received non-judicial punishment for their failures to assure COP Keating was better secured. The reasons included:
  • The insurgents conducted several probing attacks prior to the main attack
  • The insurgents were able to pinpoint their targets
  • Intelligence had indicated an attack was coming but would not consist of very many insurgents even though the insurgents had shown a capability to mount large attacks
  • Artillery from other bases was slow to respond
  • Air support responded too slowly
  • A multitude of previous small attacks lulled the base
  • Improvements were not made to the base because the word was out it would be soon closing
That said, General Swan complained:

“[Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets that could have given the soldiers of COP Keating better situational awareness of their operational environment were reprioritized to support (COP) Barge-e-Matal as well as the search for a missing U.S. soldier in the south.”

COB Keating was closed and destroyed in October 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Before watching “The Outpost” movie portraying the events that occurred at Combat Outpost Keating, I wanted to get a geographical idea of where the outpost was located. That brought me to this site. After watching the film I just can’t express how much I appreciate the integrity of the movie.

    The men who fought heroically make me proud to call them soldiers of my country. I’m forty-five years old, never served so can only offer my sincere gratitude to the men and women who defend our freedom without prejudice or self interest. In a fight like what happened in Kamdesh, real bravery and sacrifice surfaces, and this movie shined a light on that heroism, sacrifice, tragic loss off life, and the incredible emotional toll that weighs on the soldiers that fight for the United States of America.

    Thank you to those that were part of COP Keating, to all who currently and have served in the military, and to the film makers for showing American civilians how hard our service men and women work fighting for us. And a special thank you to the families that lost loved ones in action. I’m sorry for your loss, and again thank you all for the sacrifice.