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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — While battle rages on in warmer climes around the world, the fighting season in Afghanistan is drawing to a close as bitter cold descends upon its mountains and deserts.
American troops typically serve yearlong tours in Afghanistan, so they all must learn to operate in both the heat and the cold, even if the fighting largely subsides. The largest military bases in America are in places like Texas, California and the southeast — many soldiers garrisoned there have little experience in cold-weather soldiering.
For the Taliban, the winter poses nearly insurmountable tactical difficulties. Frozen mountain passes cut off supply chains, radio batteries fail quickly and campfires are easily spotted by drones and thermal cameras aboard attack helicopters.
Between mid-November and early April, particularly at high elevations, attacks on soldiers decline dramatically.
“There are a few hard-core guys that will still set the occasional IED or ambush,” said Terry Arsenault, a former Special Forces soldier who does security contracting work in Afghanistan. “Many [Taliban] head into the cities to live out the winter, some head to Pakistan, others just hunker down in their villages. Mainly they just try to survive.”
Even in the restive southern province of Kandahar, the site of the U.S.-led coalition’s major offensive this past summer and fall, although the weather doesn’t have quite as a dramatic effect on militants, their supply chain is severely disrupted through attrition.
“Because so many [fighters] look for warm places to hole up and plan, the ones who do stay quickly run out of supplies and ammo and are unable to fight for long,” Arsenault said.
And so as the violence wanes, complacency and low morale become the chief problems affecting U.S. soldiers, according to 1st Sgt. David Fiske, of D Company, 1-187 Infantry. Fiske and most of his company were stationed at Combat Outpost Zerok, an austere post 8,000 feet above sea level in Paktika province. Winter temperatures there can dip to 20 degrees below zero.
“The excitement of fighting gets replaced by boredom and long guard shifts in the cold,” Fiske said. “The winter is so much harder on soldiers here — some of them really fall into deep depressions.”
As first sergeant, Fiske’s foremost responsibility is to make sure his soldiers are fit and healthy, so he has learned a great deal about keeping morale up when the temperature falls. He said he often pulls guard shifts with his troops and encourages competitions to stave off boredom and keep skills sharp.
“If you live strictly by Army regulations, with no imagination, your company will suffer,” Fiske said. “You've got to nurture ideas among your men — like inventing games, fitness competitions, marksmanship competitions, whatever you can imagine.”
In the primitive, nameless outpost Fiske and his men recently occupied in Talukan, burning fires, around which troops crowded around, joking and playing cards, offset the cold nights and lack of electricity.
“Having the campfires at night gives soldiers something to look forward to — it's like a community event,” Fiske said. “It also allows me to keep my finger on the company's pulse and hear what issues are coming up. The loss of light discipline is worth the tradeoff in morale.”
In tactical situations where light discipline is a must, the Afghan winter is a brutal and unforgiving environment. Climbing in the mountains while carrying heavy loads or wearing too many clothes will soak them with sweat, which will quickly freeze during rest stops. Without dry clothes to change into or a fire to warm up by, the scenario can turn fatal in a matter of hours.
Since visibility can drop dramatically during winter storms, medical evacuation is routinely delayed, while ground access is often cut completely by snow and ice on steep slopes.
While his soldiers often conducted local foot patrols in Pakitka in the winter, missions longer than 24 hours were unheard of, Fiske said.
“Your physiology changes in extreme cold, which poses additional challenges when you're working on a patient,” said Capt. Seth Grubbs, a physician's assistant with the 1-187 Infantry.
According to Grubbs, most trauma patients are hypothermic from loss of fluids, even in the summer. In sub-zero temperatures that problem is magnified greatly, along with the related issue of acidosis. A hypothermic person is more likely to develop an altered blood pH, which interferes with blood clotting and can cause severe cell damage.
Grubbs described seeing his IV bags freeze in Paktika, so he began carrying them in his cargo pockets to keep them liquid. Rehydrating a victim with cold IV fluid can also contribute to hypothermia.
Weapons can jam in winter when moisture freezes in the bolt mechanism, and precision sniper rifles need to be aimed differently when the barrel is very cold, according to Arsenault, who has extensive cold-weather fighting experience.
“If you even breathe near a gunsight when it's below 32, that sight is going to fog up badly,” Arsenault said. “Cold weather will always play havoc with radios and equipment.”
And so it goes as U.S. troops enter into their 10th year of winter fighting the Afghanistan War.