Reporter’s Notebook: In Afghanistan Battle, Air Force Contribution Ignored

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Nearly a week after Taliban fighters overran a U.S. and Afghan military outpost in eastern Afghanistan, killing eight Americans and at least two Afghan soldiers, details are finally emerging about the bloody battle. But one U.S. Air Force official wonders why the air service hasn’t highlighted its own vital contributions to it.

The battle in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan province pitted hundreds of Taliban fighters against several platoons of American and Afghan troops in an isolated outpost. A platoon typically numbers 40 people. In hours of heavy fighting, the Taliban managed to penetrate the outpost’s walls and overrun some buildings. U.S. forces counter-attacked, eventually reclaiming the base. Around 100 Taliban died, according to a NATO statement.

At Bagram, the main air and logistics hub for the entire Afghanistan war effort, one Air Force official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Air Force’s efforts in the Kamdesh fighting haven’t been adequately explained. The oversight is mostly the Air Force’s fault: The flying branch has not yet released an official statement regarding the battle.

In bits and pieces, and in separate interviews over the past several days, officers at Bagram have provided some insight into the air battle for Kamdesh. Capt. Jerimy Maclellan, a pilot with the 336th Fighter Squadron, told World Politics Review that the squadron had two F-15E Strike Eagles airborne when the fighting broke out on Saturday. Those two aircraft quickly diverted to support the ground troops, while four more F-15Es launched to join them.

In the following days, the fighters maintained a constant presence over Kamdesh. The F-15E typically carries several guided bombs plus a cannon for attacking ground targets.

The Air Force also sent heavy bombers to attack the Taliban assailants during the height of the battle, one Air Force officer said.

As the fighting subsided, Air Force medical evacuation teams flew into action. Based on interviews with medical personnel at Bagram, it appears that several dozen soldiers were evacuated by air from Kamdesh to Bagram, and then on to U.S.- and Europe-based military hospitals — all within a few days, and without any reported fatalities.

“It would have been so much worse” if not for the Air Force’s efforts, the anonymous official said.

The Air Force’s unwillingness to highlight its own life-saving actions perhaps reflect an institution struggling with its identity, in the wake of high-profile scandals. In recent years, the Air Force has been entangled in several bungled, multi-billion-dollar weapons purchases, briefly lost a nuclear weapon, and saw its two top officials fired for butting heads with their Pentagon superiors. After a clean sweep of its senior leadership, today’s Air Force is more focused on supporting the Army and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that doesn’t mean it’s willing to take credit for it yet.