BAYLOUGH, Afghanistan — The hand-painted sign leading into the small U.S. base here reads, "Welcome to Hell."
It seems that hell has a swimming pool.
In the desolate mountains north of Kandahar, a platoon of handpicked soldiers is locked in a localized counterinsurgency struggle in one of the area's meager population centers.
Combat Outpost Baylough, in Zabul's rugged Day Chopan District, looks over a verdant bowl of orchards and villages and is surrounded by craggy 10,000-foot peaks.
Lt. Col. Jeff Stewart, commander of 1/24 Infantry Battalion, said he carefully considered every soldier's personality and skills before assigning them to 1st Platoon of Bravo Company at Baylough.
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The platoon nicknames itself "Reed's Ranger's," after platoon sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Reed, a former Ranger Instructor who leads his soldiers up relentlessly steep mountains to keep their enemies guessing.
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Baylough is beset on all sides by several local Taliban teams that regularly launch rockets and mortars into the base and harass soldiers with rifle fire. While soldiers from 1st Platoon have not been attacked on patrol yet, they have had to defend their base many times.
On July 24, the soldiers got an early wake-up call as three rockets crashed into the base around 4:45 a.m. Within seconds, the troops were pouring fire into the mountains where they could see armed fighters scrambling for cover.
Every time the battle died down and soldiers attempted to go eat some breakfast, more rockets poured in. Swarms of flies feasted on the hastily abandoned food.
Later in the morning, soldiers fired back rockets of their own — two Javelin missiles that knocked out a Taliban mortar position. Over the course of the day, 13 Taliban rockets hit Baylough, although none of them hurt anyone or did any significant damage.
The Taliban, however, did appear to take some casualties — intercepted radio chatter indicated that three fighters died in a mortar strike and several more were wounded. For the next 24 hours, the Taliban played funeral music over their radios.
Stewart describes the Baylough area as a "classic counterinsurgency fight," where his soldiers struggle with the Taliban for influence over small villages in unforgiving terrain.
Reed and platoon leader Capt. Charlie Timm take turns leading daily patrols into the villages to conduct "key leader engagements," which means they sit down with a local elder and discuss what's new in the area, from Taliban movements to how the wheat crop is doing.
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"I'm a farmer back home, so I'm interested in this stuff," Reed said to Hajii Abdulbari, an elder in a nearby village. "I have horses and cows too, but other than that we're growing the same things."
Reed, an affable, well-spoken Texan, says he hates doing key leader engagements, but once he starts chatting with Abdulbari it is clear he wants to help however he can.
The meeting goes round and round. Reed wants information on the Taliban and for Abdulbari to set up a local police force to fight them. Abdulbari wants better security before he is willing to risk the lives of his sons. Reed said they wouldn’t get better security until locals resist the Taliban.
Reed and Abdulbari said they agree that the government in Kabul cannot provide security in Day Chopan. The Afghan government has cut off development money for the district because of the security problem, essentially a catch-22. With no economic development incentives to offer the villagers, Reed and Timm have very little to bargain with for Abdulbari's support and rely completely on their own initiative, ingenuity and combat power to make progress.
During a patrol, Timm asked a village leader to relay an extraordinary message to a local Taliban commander: Come down to the district center and talk to me. It is extremely rare for a platoon leader to attempt a sit-down with a Taliban team leader, but Timm said he thinks a bargain is a good way to turn Baylough's security situation around.
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Reed and his soldiers, covered in sophisticated electronics and weaponry, contrast distinctly with Abdulbari and his simply dressed entourage. A barefoot local man cracks an almond between two dusty rocks while Reed and Abdulbari talk.
"We hope you can bring security, because we have been in a war for four decades," Abdulbari said wearily. "We are powerless to stop it."
While not fighting off Taliban attacks or patrolling through the neighboring villages, the boys of Baylough work to improve their austere living conditions. The big project so far: a swimming pool.
To build it, they dug out a huge pit in the middle of the outpost and used an old rubber-skinned tent as a liner. A pump keeps the water circulating and they drain and refill it every week or so as dust blown in from helicopters landing nearby turns the water brown. An inflatable giraffe bobs around in the cool water, terrifying the outpost's resident puppy, Lady.
Welcome to Hell, indeed.