'Spot the Green Beret' is an easy game to play at Firebase Cobra, a remote American outpost in Uruzgan province, central Afghanistan. The U.S. Army Special Forces (Airborne) soldiers invariably wear beards.
This is in contrast to clean-shaven Dutch Major General Mart de Kruif, the outgoing commander of some 40,000 NATO troops in Southern Afghanistan. After seven failed attempts, the General managed to visit Firebase Cobra earlier this week. Not that the U.S. Green Berets fall under his command. They are part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the multinational, U.S.-led counterterrorism coalition.
The main purpose of General de Kruif's visit to Firebase Cobra is to check whether the coordination of NATO and OEF-operations efforts works out in the field. Also, during his one-year period of command, the Dutchman made a point of visiting as many of the some 160 forward operating bases in southern Afghanistan as possible. To meet local commanders face-to-face, and to see the often challenging circumstances with his own eyes.
Challenging is one way to describe the environment in the district of Charchino in this northwestern part of Uruzgan province. Firebase Cobra is completely surrounded by hostile forces. Supplies have to be airdropped or flown in by helicopter. The Green Berets spend eight months here, uninterrupted by such luxuries as a brief home leave. Their number is classified, but it's safe to say that there is more than the 12-men strong basic unit of the Special Forces.
Also, they have the necessary fire support at the base. I saw more than one 105mm howitzer and more than one heavy mortar at Firebase Cobra. In a little over two months, the guns dispatched almost 5,000 rounds, from smoke and illuminating grenades to protect patrols, to lethal High Explosive to hit the enemy when need be. This is Uruzgan's 'Wild West'.
Still, as one Green Beret, on his second tour at the firebase, remarks: "last time I was here, they opened fired as soon as we left the gate. Now, this doesn't happen until we venture out a couple of clicks (kilometers)."
Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, are a growing problem, as they are in other parts of Afghanistan. In certain areas of the district, the Green Berets now prefer to patrol on foot, rather than in their armoured Humvees. A blown-up Afghan police pick-up truck tucked away in the repair corner of the firebase testifies to this problem. The truck is beyond repair.
The local population around Firebase Cobra finds its way to the camp in need of help. Every day some 50 to 60 locals report at the primitive sick bay at Firebase Cobra for treatment of a variety of injuries and illnesses. The American doctor also doubles as a vet to treat cattle. And in spite of the logistical challenges, the pharmacy is well-stocked.
And in other ways as well Cobra's Green Berets are not so wild and trigger-happy as their reputation suggests. According to Major General De Kruif "they, too, are actively pursuing the 'three D's." Meaning Defense, Diplomacy and Development.
A bit to the South, the Helmand River streams through a narrow gorge and eventually leads to the safe area around Deh Rawod. However, the valley is hostile, the terrain is ideal for the insurgents and it would take a major operation to link the Firebase Cobra area to Deh Rawod. Still, the Dutch general predicts that in a year's time, that link-up will be realised. Is it a heads-up for an upcoming offensive in this region? Time will tell.
And as I stroll around Firebase Cobra, I realize that this outpost is not exactly frequented by the media. Before me, there only was a National Geographic TV crew, back in 2006. Unfortunately for them and the Green Berets they were following, their vehicle hit an IED. Fortunately, all survived.
U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne)
U.S. Army Special Operations Command
'Inside the Green Berets'- National Geographic TV documentary, 51 min.
'Five years after the Battle of Tarin Kowt' - ODA-574 and Hamid Karzai in Uruzgan/Oruzgan, 2001
(Lead picture: Major General Mart de Kruif (6th from the right) at Firebase Cobra)