The View From Checkpoint Delta
June 2008

by David Bathgate

Headed north, the Toyota pickup slowed and drifted to a motor-less stop at the checkpoint, its driver signaling compliance - not wanting to be shot. Meters from a rusty gate, its cargo of bearded men atop sacks and boxes, looked down silently from the truck's bed, waiting to see what would happen next.

"Salam-alaykum," the border policeman greeted, putting on his cap and lifting himself from a sandbag seat to take the few steps to the battered vehicle, AK-47 hanging loosely from his shoulder.

"Wa Alaykum As-Salam," returned a soft chorus from the truck.

© David Bathgate / Corbis
Afghan Border Police stop a truck to question passengers and inspect cargo at "Checkpoint Delta" on the Aghan-Pakistan border.
As the officer circled with a security mirror, a second joined him to comb wheel wells, bumper areas and to look beneath the hood. Then came the order to get out and nine men of varying ages were lined up to be patted down for weapons. They were separated, told to sit on the ground facing the mountainside and to stay quiet. A young American soldier with an Afghan interpreter appeared on the scene and several passengers were singled out for questioning.

Two others were instructed to untie the truck's load and everything was brought to the roadside for inspection. It took three-quarters of an hour for this thorough search to be completed. Rice, oil, veterinary and human medical supplies, plus millinery goods, were all that was found. Quantities were large and the truck's driver claimed resale in shops up the valley to be the reason. Stories of the others seemed to substantiate this. A feeling of suspicion loomed among police and military but there were by now other vehicles waiting to travel north and south. The gate was lifted and the vehicle was on its way.

Welcome to Checkpoint Delta, a tiny U.S. military installation built of dirt-filled chain-link Hesco barriers and razor wire, within a sniper's reach of Pakistan in Afghanistan's northeast. On multi-day rotations, this is home to a small number of U.S. Army troops from Task Force Saber, 1st Squadron of the 91st Cavalry Regiment, based a short distance south at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Naray, in northern Kunar Province.

© David Bathgate / Corbis
U.S. Army "Checkpoint Delta" on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, in northern Kunar Province.
The spartan digs of an Afghan Border Police encampment sits across the road on a hill opposite. These encampments, few in number and minimally equipped, are the mandate of the Afghans to secure and control. This is the only north-south access road so near to the border and it is a narrow, gravel-filled and winding one that leads to the Upper Kunar Valley. It is a virtual black hole of villages, districts and ethnic alliances: friend and foe to the Afghan government and the U.S. forces stationed here. It's the Americans' job to see that it all gets done right.

It took me nearly two weeks to reach this place. The Afghan winter of 2008 had been particularly severe and much of the time helicopters just didn't fly. I began my two-week embed at Bagram (BAF) – NATO's military "city" north of the nation's capital, Kabul. But weather delays here and in the milder climes of Jalalabad had pushed my stay into overtime. Finally a break in the weather did come and I boarded a CH-47 Chinook helicopter en route to FOB Naray, northward and kilometers closer to Pakistan.

© David Bathgate / Corbis
An Afghan Border Policeman frisks passengers of a truck stopped at "Checkpoint Delta" in northeastern Afghanistan.
I'd traveled in military helicopters many times before but this flight was somehow eerie. The cold--snow on hills and valley walls and the dry-brown landscape sharply visible below spoke of "barrenness" in the extreme.

On a contour map the region is one of nearly inseparable black lines. On the ground, the ruggedness of the Hindu Kush leaves little doubt that one could easily hide here or fail to secure and control its perimeter. It's that formidable.

It was sunny the afternoon we convoyed to Checkpoint Delta. Five Humvees and 20 men arriving for a four-day operation, we quickly exchanged positions with the group we replaced. Theirs had been a quiet stay. With us came "credible" intelligence that Taliban elements were planning an attack and that it could come sooner rather than later.

"We've heard it before," the sergeant in command told me. "Most times these things pass without incident. Of course, though, you never know."

© David Bathgate / Corbis
U.S. Army soldiers of Task Force Saber grill frankfurters and hamburgers for breakfast at "Checkpoint Delta" on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
In the past an attack was launched from a large rock outcrop halfway up the hillside just past the start of the canyon, he related. "That was daylight hours, just following morning prayers and breakfast," he said. "But it was suicide no matter how you look at it. Nighttime's the same. Bad guys are no match for night-vision optics. The problems start when we put a patrol on that road and send it up the valley. That's where the hell breaks out," he said.

To support his claim, the sergeant told of an incident that occurred several weeks earlier – an ambush only a few kilometers up the road. A firefight broke out, troops were pinned down and air support had to be called in from Bagram. The confrontation left one U.S. soldier and 40 insurgents dead and a number of the latter's ranks injured and still at large. This is one reason for extra effort at the gate at present the sergeant explained. "Medical supplies of any kind and large amounts of food and other provisions might signal support for survivors," he continued. "That, we just don't want."

And as if that weren't enough, corpses of four kidnapped Afghan road workers were found beheaded in the exact spot that Taliban fatalities were, he went on.

© David Bathgate / Corbis
A mortar round lights up the night sky and Hindu Kush Mountains surrounding "Checkpoint Delta," on Afghanistan's northeast border with Pakistan. The mortar blast was a "show of force" to deter any insurgent night movement into the zone.
"It was clearly a political statement," said the sergeant, "retaliation and a warning to anyone who would collaborate with the government or the military here to support it."

That first night of our stay passed without incident, save for a clogged stovepipe filling the cramped plywood barracks with smoke. The nights following were quiet, too. Days were busied with vehicle searches, cutting planks and two-by-fours to stoke the night with warmth, two-hour guard duties and grilled hotdogs and burgers whenever anyone wanted. The "Intel" was wrong--that or the bad guys just decided to wait it out, conserve whatever they had left until next time the enemy passed their way.

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© David Bathgate

David Bathgate is a freelance photojournalist represented by Corbis Pictures in Paris. He is also a contract photographer in Europe for The New York Times. Holding a Ph.D. in anthropology, his work frequently centers on other cultures, social systems different from those in the West and political situations that affect us all. For the past few years Bathgate has worked almost exclusively in the Middle East and Asia for publications such as Newsweek, Stern and Focus. This was his seventh trip to Afghanistan in pursuit of what he describes as "a love affair," still beyond identification.

More of David Bathgate's work can be seen at:, as well as at the site of his online teaching:

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