After the two Chinook helicopters descend from the cobalt sky and land amid a flurry of whirring rotors and flying grit, 48 figures emerge from their ramps.
At their head is 2nd Lt. Jed Richard. Since March, his platoon has been conducting what he refers to as “Special Forces work” in Khakeran, the northernmost district of dry, mountainous Zabul province in Afghanistan. Last year, the Taliban overran the government compound in Khakeran, burning it down and killing several policemen. But since Richard’s troops arrived and made their headquarters in the same compound, 75 kilometers from his battalion headquarters in the provincial capital of Qalat, no U.S. or Afghan soldiers have been killed there.
Richard and his men of 2nd Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, have been busy training the Afghan National Army (ANA) unit there, building a school, hiring teachers, holding medical clinics and establishing rapport with local leaders. The work has borne fruit. Business is booming in Khakeran, Richard said, with merchants’ confidence restored by the U.S. military presence. Before the Americans’ arrival, Richard said, “They basically were people hiding from the Taliban.”
But Richard’s 34-man platoon doesn’t spend all its time on civil affairs projects in Khakeran. For the past three days his men have been humping their rucksacks across 30 kilometers of the country’s most rugged terrain, on the hunt for Taliban fighters. The deposed force of Islamic extremists continue to bedevil the efforts of the United States, its coalition allies and the Afghan government to establish a stable, secure society in a country that has known nothing but war and grinding poverty for the past quarter of a century.
Now, Richard’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mark Stammer, is repositioning his platoon via Chinook to the northeast. Richard’s new mission is to scour a cluster of tiny villages around the hamlet of Solaymani for any sign of Mullah Alim (pronounced “Ee-lahm”), a mid-level Taliban leader. But the patrol is also part of a larger strategy headed by brigade commander Col. Kevin Owens to force the Taliban to engage U.S. troops or lose credibility as an insurgent force.
The challenges faced by Richard and his men speak to the larger issues that confront coalition forces in Afghanistan as they wage a counterinsurgency campaign against a stubborn, elusive enemy that loses every firefight with U.S. troops, yet survives by terrorizing the population into cooperation and submission.
Jumping off the Chinooks alongside the 23 U.S. paratroopers are 20 ANA soldiers, dressed in woodland green BDUs, and three young Afghan interpreters, all armed with AK-47 variants. With the Afghans in the lead, the patrol advances through the dappled shade of an almond orchard toward the first village in its path. The village consists of a few dirt-colored one-story compounds with thick walls of mud and straw. It appears almost deserted, but the uninvited visitors soon attract attention.
An old man with brown, leathery skin strolls along the dirt path that is the route through the village. He is wearing a light-colored shalwar kameez — a thin cotton shirt and baggy pants — and dark vest, essentially the national dress for male Afghans. Richard motions for him to sit down and starts to question him via an interpreter. But, in a pattern to be repeated throughout the day, the old man answers vaguely when asked about Mullah Alim, and complains that he is hard of hearing as the questioning grows more intense. Richard grows frustrated. Mullah Alim is a major figure in these parts.
“This guy’s f---ing bull----ing me if he said he doesn’t know Mullah Alim,” he said.
Then Richard examines his map and realizes the helicopters have put his force at a different landing zone than the one he thought. The village he is supposed to clear is due east. It’s time to pick up and move. Richard tries one last time to elicit information from the locals gathering around his men.
“Is there Taliban in that village,” he asks. “No, no,” say the villagers through the interpreter. A sardonic smile spreads across the face of one of the ANA soldiers. “Bull----” he whispers in English.
“Here’s the difference between us and the Taliban,” Richard tells a group of men gathered in the shade of almond trees in the next village, equally poor and with little evidence of having absorbed any of the world’s technological advances since the 18th century. “When we come to a village and you say you don’t want us, we don’t try to harm you or kill you. The Taliban does.”
He points out that the advantages, such as construction of schools and infrastructure, of cooperating with coalition forces.
“The next time the Taliban come here, you tell them they should probably leave your village, because we’re going to kill them. Tell them the only chance they have to live is if they help out the new government and the ANA.”
A man in a white skull cap explains that the Taliban will come in the night, bang on the door and say, “We are 10 guys — give us food,” and if the villagers refuse, they get beaten or shot. “The only way we’re going to make your country stronger is if you don’t give the Taliban sanctuary in your village,” Richard replies. He tells them to report Taliban activities at the police station in Akhtar, 10 miles to the west.
Then Richard addresses the half-dozen young boys among his audience. He explains the benefits of helping the Americans. In Khakeran, he said, he built a school so that local children could be educated.
“I hired four teachers and 200 children go to school every day in a place where the Taliban took away their school,” he said. The words have resonance here. The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai created a small school for the children of these villagers, but the Taliban burned it down last year.
“We’ll bring food here [in winter] if I start hearing from this village. But if you don’t go there [to Akhtar], and I hear the Taliban have been here every 10 or 15 days, I’m gonna think you like the Taliban and I’m not gonna give you anything. Stop making excuses about how they’re gonna come and kill you and do something about it,” Richard said.
Sitting quietly off to the side is 1st Sgt. Noor Ulwahid Safie, the senior ANA man on the patrol. Unlike most of his men, all but one of whom are armed with AKs, he carries a Dragunov sniper rifle, to which he affixes a bayonet in the shade of a stunted tree. A Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, he grew up as a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he attended a madrassa for seven years in the 1980s. As a boy, he was exposed to the Pakistan Army and decided to join if ever there was an equivalent army for Afghanistan.
He returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the communist regime in the early 1990s, worked as a shopkeeper and got married. He worked for a couple of years as a policeman. He has been a soldier for only 11 months. Safie talks quietly with the locals. He writes a letter for them to bring when they report Taliban activity to the police or the ANA. The letter said the villagers here have a very low standard of living, and asks the recipient to do something to improve their lives. Safie signs the letter and hands it to a village elder.
The patrol moves on to the next village. There, the pattern repeats itself. Richard asks the locals what they know of Mullah Alim. Most say they have never heard of him.
Richard is visibly aggravated with the inability of his interpreter, a slight 19-year-old from Kandahar, to convey his words with the force he desires. The interpreter seems intimidated by the situation, and repeats Richard’s strong commands in a weak, timid tone. The problem underlines the extent of Richard’s reliance on his three Afghan interpreters. None of his troops knows more than a couple of words of Pashto, and none of the ANA soldiers speaks better than pidgin English.
The lieutenant calls over the one interpreter upon whom he can rely, a young, professional-looking man from Herat called Nasir. He listens to the villagers, and in summarizing their complaints, encapsulates the major challenge facing the coalition forces in this part of Afghanistan: The villagers say that the Americans will be here for maybe four or five days and then leave, and then afterwards; the Taliban will come back and punish the villagers for helping the Americans.
The comments underline the central challenge for the coalition forces in this part of Afghanistan: They do not have the troop strength to cover more than a fraction of the territory for which they are responsible, and wherever they are absent, the Taliban can operate with impunity. Stammer’s 950-soldier Task Force Rock, built around 2-503 Airborne Infantry Regiment, has to cover the 6,700 square miles of Zabul.
“We’re covering a 50 kilometer-by-50 kilometer box with one platoon,” Richard said. There are also a couple of provincial reconstruction teams and a tiny Special Forces presence in the province, but nothing close to the numbers needed.
With little chance of an expanded U.S. presence in the region, the only potential solution — and the best, according to standard counterinsurgency doctrine — is to increase the footprint of the ANA and, especially, the Afghan National Police (ANP), in the province. Safie, the ANA first sergeant, said the key is to establish a strong police presence in each village.
“All of the problems are because of the [lack of] ANP,” he said. But U.S. officials admit they are having a harder time standing up the ANP than the ANA, and they acknowledge that the boundaries between the two services’ roles and missions remain blurred.
Although the establishment of small police substations in villages like Solaymani would, in theory, help establish bonds of trust between the security services and the populace, the recent history of such experiments is that the Taliban just overruns the police stations, Richard said.
Nor is the ANA ready to take over. On this patrol, it is clear that while most of the ANA troops are eager, they lack the professionalism that U.S. soldiers take for granted.
Upon entering one village, rather than remaining alert for an ambush, an ANA fighter immediately laid down beside his rifle to rest in the sun. Few, if any, ANA soldiers marched with their weapons at the ready, preferring to sling them over their backs, even though they were patrolling through reportedly hostile territory.
Richard and his men are aware of the ANA’s weaknesses, but remain optimistic.
“Our job is to train them and let them see as much of what we do as possible, so that when we leave, they can take care of themselves,” Richard said. There are signs of progress. “Where it used to be the Americans who went into the village first, now it’s the ANA,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Gabel, one of Richard’s squad leaders.
Room for the night
The troops need somewhere to spend the night. Richard negotiates with the owner of an adobe compound in the middle of Solaymani. If the farmer allows Richard and his men to move into his yard, the platoon leader promises to bring enough food to get the village through the cold winter months, when peasants in this part of Afghanistan go into a state of virtual hibernation, many freezing to death. The farmer relents. He is the same man who earlier expressed his anger at the Taliban. Richard ends up paying him 1,000 Afghanis — about $20 — for the use of his property.
Nightfall brings a visitor to the door of the compound, a man who wants to talk to the Americans. This is the way it usually goes, Richard said. People afraid to be seen speaking with the Americans, but who have information they want to share, will wait for darkness before making their approach. Tonight’s visitor has a lot to offer. He tells Richard he knows where three boxes of ammunition are buried.
The platoon leader promptly tells him to retrieve them. The man disappears, and returns a short while later with three metal boxes, each about 12 inches by four inches by four inches. The Americans pry the boxes open to reveal about a hundred armor-piercing rounds of 12.7mm DShK heavy-machine-gun ammunition in each. It’s a significant find, and one that suggests more is going on in and around the village than the locals are willing to acknowledge.
The visitor also tells Richard that he knows where a local Taliban figure, Qazimullah, lives — in a big farm compound less than a mile from where the platoon is billeted. Richard is excited. He tells the informant to lead him to Qazimullah’s home.
Under a new agreement with the Karzai government, U.S. troops are not allowed to conduct nighttime searches of Afghan homes, so the lead element tonight must come from the ANA. Safie gathers a handful of men. Richard brings a few Americans to set up a support-by-fire position over-watching the compound. The small group sets off into the night
The ANA troops knock politely, and then more loudly on the door, with no response for 15 minutes. The American platoon leader later acknowledges that his Afghan partners “don’t quite have the violence-of-action thing down.” Finally, as the Afghans are preparing to shoot off the lock, a man who is not Qazimullah opens the door. The target of the search is away, he says, as the troops file past him.
The ANA soldiers find nothing of value, but speak intently with Qazimullah’s two brothers, who are each home. One brother is of little use, but the other clearly has differences with Qazimullah, and leaves the compound to talk with Richard. for reasons that are unclear, they leave the uncooperative brother behind. The brother who leaves the compound is a mine of information. He tells Richard that the three major players in the local Taliban are his brother, Mullah Alim and a man called Mullah Qadir. They operate in the Arghandab and Zargaran districts, he said. This information backs up recent signals intelligence “hits” indicating Taliban activity in Zargaran, Richard said.
The brother said the Taliban fighters he has seen passing through the village carried AKs and RPGs. “How often do they come to the village?” Richard asks. “If you leave this village,” the brother answers, “they will come the next day.”
The next morning, Richard orders Sgt. Matthew Simon’s squad to clear every building between Qazimullah’s compound and the farm where the platoon has spent the night. The ANA troops are considered out of action, because this is the first day of Ramadan, when observant Muslims are forbidden from eating or drinking anything during the daylight hours. In one compound, the Americans find a footlocker full of dismantled radios and wires. The past six months have seen a rise in the Taliban’s use of homemade bombs, and this gadgetry looks particularly incongruous in a village that has no electricity or running water. But the homeowner said the contents of the footlocker belong to his brother, who fixes radios.
Every compound the Americans enter contains at least one large pile of dried brush big enough to hide multiple cases of assault rifles or RPGs. But the soldiers rarely investigate them: New rules restrict what U.S. troops can do during clearing operations.
Simon and his men head to Qazimullah’s compound. It being daylight, the U.S. soldiers are free to poke around the household. While there, Simon gets an interesting report over the radio from Richard: Intercepted radio traffic indicates that the Taliban have eyes on the troops going through the villages, and are reporting, “They haven’t found anything yet.”
The troops stay one more night. In the frozen morning, they prepare for pick-up by Chinooks that will return them to Khakeran.
Richard is pleased with the results of the operation. He has been able to fill in several important blanks in his battalion’s knowledge of local Taliban operations.
“Now we know that there’s also Taliban activity in Zargaran,” he said. “We also know that Mullah Alim doesn’t just use this place as a sanctuary, he actually has fighters here and the fact that we know that Mullah Alim was here two days ago is big.”
In addition, the discovery of the DShK ammo tells him “there’s something here that isn’t good.” Sitting outside the compound, Safie, the Afghan first sergeant, also reflects on the events of the previous 48 hours. The best way to get the locals to reveal what they know about the Taliban would be to make two visits to the village, he said. On the first, the ANA should hold a big meeting with the villagers at which they deliver on promises to help them. “After that the people will understand there is a government that is strong, and we are their national army,” he said.
Only on a second visit should the issue of Taliban activity be raised, he said. “Not like this way where we come with weapons out and the people are scared and the Taliban escape.”