KABUL AFGHANISTAN GIs Sit Ready at Ghostlike Former Soviet Base by Richard S. Ehrlich
Published in Washington, D.C.
December 10, 2001
GIs sit ready at 'ghostlike' former Soviet base
By Richard S. Ehrlich
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Soldiers with the U.S. 10th Mountain Division based in Fort Drum, N.Y., say they are just waiting for their chance to go after the Taliban and its terrorist al Qaeda allies in the Tora Bora mountain complex southeast of here.
"If we're called upon to go after the Taliban, we'd be more than willing to do it, and we're definitely the best trained," said Jason, a Baltimore native who added that he had never been in terrain like that of Afghanistan.
"We don't really get to see these kinds of mountains on the East Coast. I flew over the Rockies once and it looked about like this," the 27-year-old said as he cradled his assault rifle while peering at distant, sky-stabbing peaks.
Reporting rules do not permit the publication of the full names of enlisted U.S. soldiers who have been quietly occupying this former Soviet air base 42 miles north of Kabul since around Thanksgiving.
Jim, a 10th Mountain soldier from Texas, said he though it would be "easy money" for his unit to dig the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters out of their caves at Tora Bora.
"Every enemy is definitely formidable, but I believe they're pretty much under control at this point," he said. "We have our training and they have theirs, and may the best man win."
So far, however, U.S. commanders have been letting Afghan forces do the job of rooting enemy fighters out of the caves and valleys around Tora Bora, supported by U.S. strikes and a limited number of special forces spotters on the ground.
In the meantime, the American soldiers are keeping busy repairing the bomb-gouged runways at Bagram, erecting a workable control tower and working to expand the air base's ability to accommodate large planes.
At night, they sleep in the barracks of former Soviet forces, who once used this air base to bomb U.S.-backed Muslim guerrillas.
"That's kind of ironic," said Maj. Vic Harris, a Ranger with a shaved head and wraparound sunglasses, as he gazed at a line of wrecked Soviet MiG-21 warplanes.
"When I first came here and saw all these MiGs and saw all the Soviet writing on the walls, I thought it's almost a ghostlike presence of a regime that failed.
"I'm a combat arms officer. I trained like from 1982 to just about 10 years ago to fight the Soviet Union," Maj. Harris said in an interview. "So to see the Soviet Union's equipment here, an enemy that we trained against for so many years, is kind of interesting personally."
U.N. helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft currently use Bagram Air Base for limited humanitarian aid, expensive passenger shuttles and other purposes.
The 10th Mountain Division shares the base with Special Operations Command officers from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg.
There are also some British forces and armed Afghan fighters from the Northern Alliance.
The eeriness of living on a former enemy's base fascinates many of the U.S. troops.
When Moscow withdrew its Red Army in 1989, it left behind repair and maintenance equipment for aircraft, bullet-scarred MiG warplanes and other items too costly to ship back to Russia.
Much of the forgotten Soviet equipment now stands like museum pieces in a post-industrial exhibit of communism's metal junk.
"There's tank turrets from old Russian tanks," Maj. Harris said. "Old Soviet writing, old Soviet barracks -- all the things that were indicators of a super power that is no more."
Special Operations Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond V. Cordell said the Soviets may have stationed 500 to 1,000 men at Bagram Air Base at the height of the war against the Afghan resistance movement in the 1980s.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas 1979 and used Bagram Air Base to launch devastating aerial bombardments throughout the country during the next decade.
But when the United States gave hundreds of sophisticated, portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to anti-communist guerrillas, the Soviet occupation became too deadly and Moscow abandoned the base in 1989.
Factions within the Northern Alliance government that seized Kabul in 1992 used the base to unleash attacks against each other as the alliance deteriorated into a grab for Afghanistan's spoils.
The Taliban captured the base from the remnants of the Northern Alliance regime in 1996.