Bingo. We’re on the ground with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province.
First impressions: The forward base here in Qalat has a view of a castle that once housed Alexander the Great.
We flew in by Blackhawk this afternoon and saw just one car driving along on an empty stretch of Afghanistan’s Highway 1, the loop that connects the country’s main cities. That’s one truck on a beautifully paved road.
Tan Afghan homes blend into the brown earth and tall mountains in the distance. The soil appeared desert dry, but there were signs of agriculture visible from the air, such as land terracing and irrigation.
Romanian soldiers share the base, and they’ve been here for several years. Their sacrifices are marked with a special memorial to Romanians casualties here.
Four names from Joint Base Lewis-McChord on another memorial caught my eye when I left the helicopter terminal. Staff Sgt. Conrad Mora, Sgt. Daniel Lim, Spc. Joseph Bauer and Pfc. Andrew L. Hand of the 17th Fires Brigade were killed together here in Qalat by an improvised explosive on July 24, 2010 when they were assigned to a route clearance team.
I remembered them from the their battery’s moving homecoming ceremony in October 2010, when their widows joined their husbands’ unit for one last formation.
We had several informative interviews today that we’ll use to shape the reports we send back to you over the next few weeks.
We learned that we’re in a good position to report on the coming drawdown of American surge forces. NATO is steering more advisory teams here to bolster what are considered capable Afghan security forces and government leaders.
“Could Zabul now, without us, not be overrun by the Taliban? Absolutely,” said Lt. Col. Robert Halvorson, the brigade’s executive officer.
“Right now it’s sufficient. Does that mean that’s where we’re going to leave it that way? No. If you leave something at the tipping point, it doesn’t take much to push it over,” he said.
That’s the frame for the work Peter and I are about to do as we observe what’s happening on the ground outside of the headquarters.
Here’s how we escaped Kandahar Air Field.
We woke up at 4 a.m. and got back in line to catch a space available helicopter flight to Qalat. No dice, we learned at 7 a.m. There was a crowd of Lewis-McChord soldiers headed in the same direction, and about four K-9 crews who were taking up a lot of space.
I stewed as our public affairs escort started driving us back to base’s media support center, and suggested we check a different helicopter ramp – the one that just the previous night said it didn’t have any flights to Qalat on Thursday.
Turns out it did.
We signed up, got some breakfast and relaxed knowing we’d finally get to report on the soldiers we came to see. About two hours later, the flight crew called out a list of names for Qalat.
We weren’t on it.
I thought that meant we’d have a fifth night by the poo pond.
I asked if we were simply overlooked on that flight list.
“I can take you,” he said.
And here we are.