Conflict & Justice

News Update: Militants target police base, killing 3 Americans

Three American soldiers died last night in an attack on a base in Kandahar City. They were among the eight killed in the last 24 hours in Afghanistan, putting July on track to be as violent a month as June, the deadliest month in the country since the Afghan war began in 2001.

The three Americans were killed when insurgents mounted a sophisticated attack on an Afghan National Civil Order Police compound on Kandahar’s west side. The soldiers were part of an American unit partnering with and training the police to man 13 checkpoints around Kandahar. The partnership is part of the larger architecture of the Kandahar offensive, dubbed Operation “Hamkari,” meaning “cooperation” in Dari and Pashtun languages.

I had just been at the police headquarters earlier as part of a “battle space circulation” with one of the senior American officers here. We visited several checkpoints where the soldiers were partnered with the police. The checkpoints are vulnerable. The base, however, didn’t appear to be.

When I returned today, the scene was horrific.

Parts of the suicide bomber were still baked to a white concrete wall by the 115 degree heat. A bloodstained, torn and pockmarked heap of U.S. standard issue body armor lay near where the first suicide bomber detonated. Next to it lay a torn and broken American desert combat boot.

Afghanistan War, War Photos
Charred U.S.-issued body armor and a desert combat boot near the site of the attack. (Photo by Ben Gilbert for GlobalPost)

The soldiers had moved out of their broken tents and had arranged bunks in the heat of the afternoon. They looked exhausted.

The Afghan National Civil Order Police base had recently reinforced the perimeter that faces Afghanistan’s Highway 1 – a major thoroughfare. But the base’s perimeter had not been beefed up on the back side. The Americans and Afghans in charge of the base figured it would be best to put up smaller barriers so as not to limit the neighborhood peoples’ ability to use the road. So they left a narrow walkway alongside their back perimeter.

The attacks exploited the American effort to be sensitive to local Afghan needs.

The attack began around 9:30 p.m. last night. The attackers used a hand drawn cart common in Afghanistan to conceal a bomb that they wheeled along the back wall, using the pedestrian walkway. They detonated the bomb, tearing a hole in the brick wall. It may have been a powerful “shape charge.”

At the same time, the first of three suicide bombers entered the perimeter of the base. Gunmen on top of nearby buildings began firing down on the base to keep the American and Afghan guards’ heads down. Rocket propelled grenades slammed into buildings and other grenades were tossed into the compound.

The suicide bomber ran into the compound and to his right. He was confronted by an American soldier in body armor and helmet. It’s not known if he was able to get off a shot. The suicide bomber detonated, killing the soldier and possibly sending shrapnel into a nearby tent.

Then, the second suicide bomber entered the compound.

When the attack began, five civilian translators working with the U.S. military were hanging out in a bunker right next to a wall, smoking cigarettes. The hole in the wall led straight past the opening to the bunker. The second suicide bomber opened fire into the bunker with the automatic rifle he was carrying. Three interpreters and an American soldier died there.

By this point, American soldiers began returning fire and focusing their efforts on the hole in the wall.

The third suicide bomber then entered and fired an rocket propelled grenade. Because of the heavy fire, the bomber turned around and ran back out into the street. He was shot by American soldiers from the guard towers. He detonated on the street.

But fire continued to pour into the base from the nearby rooftops. As the U.S. troops attempted to maneuver to stop any more suicide bombers from penetrating the base, another American soldier was shot and mortally wounded.

One of the rocket propelled grenade’s struck the police barracks, killing an Afghan policeman. 17 U.S. soldiers were wounded in the 20 minute battle.

“It was a sophisticated, well planned attack,” said the American commander, who asked not to be identified until after his soldier’s families are notified of those killed in action and wounded.

The base has been filled to capacity with American and Afghan soldiers preparing for the Kandahar campaign. The attack on the police base was symbolic — the troops here are taking part in the first part of three stages of Hamkari and the checkpoints just became operational in the last week.

The attack could have been much more devastating. The first American tents were only steps away from the breached wall.

UPDATE, July 27:

Afghanistan War, War Photos
Lt. Col. David Oclander shows Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges where the Taliban breached the wall at the Afghan National Civil Order Police Headquarters in western Kandahar City. Three U.S. troops, five Afghan civilians and one policeman died in the attack on July 13. (Photo by Ben Gilbert for GlobalPost)

The U.S. Department of Defense has identified the troops killed in the July 13 attack, which means it’s possible to describe in detail the events of the evening.

When the commander of the 82nd Airborne’s 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Lt. Col. David Oclander, walked me through the scene of that attack, he paid homage to his soldier’s actions in the midst of what must have been a dark and chaotic night.

Staff Sgt. Christopher T. Stout, 34, of Worthville, Kentucky, was the battalion chaplain’s assistant. Lt. Colonel Oclander said at the first signs of the initial attack, Stout put on his body armor and helmet and moved toward the scene of the attack. The first suicide bomber was already inside the perimeter of the base and had advanced to just a few steps from tents filled with American paratroopers.

“The suicide attacker detonates himself … killing Sgt. Stout and him, but no one else is killed, largely because of Sgt Stout’s actions,” Oclander said.

1st Lt. Christopher S. Goeke, 23, of Minnesota, was a platoon leader with the battalion’s Charlie Company. He was killed after the initial attack as he advanced on the attackers’ positions outside the base.

Staff Sgt. Sheldon L. Tate, 27, of Hinesville, Georgia, died in a bunker in the initial assault along with at least three Afghan interpreters working with the U.S. military to help train and partner the Afghan police troops. It’s not clear if Sgt. Tate was already in the bunker at the time of the attack or had sought shelter there.

The Department of Defense announced that 1st Lt. Goeke and Staff Sgt. Stout were assigned to 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.

Staff Sgt. Tate was assigned to the 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.

Editor’s Note: Because of an editing error, in the original version of this post Dari was referred to as the predominant language of southern Afghanistan. Although Dari is spoken in the area, it is not the predominant language. The story has been changed to correct the error.