DAMIEN KUHN planted a boot in the loose rock, shrugged his shoulders under the awkward weight, and steadied himself on the ever-steeper slope, halfway up a mountainside in the Hindu Kush. Just ahead, soldiers snaked single-file toward the ridgeline. More men followed behind him, sweaty faces glistening in the midafternoon sun. He turned and looked back, down into the valley, where a hawk rode the currents and a ribbon of brown water slid between the mountain seams. Farther on, a few miles to the east, the earth rose sharply into the high peaks of Pakistan, still heavy with snow. The view was stunning, yes. But after all those months, circumstances had muted his appreciation for such moments. "You can't really enjoy hiking," he said, "when someone's trying to kill you."
Observation Post Hatchet lay several hundred feet below on a narrow, rocky shelf, a couple of acres of mountainside at the farthest, most desolate reaches of America's war in Afghanistan. The 24 men of Recon Platoon, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, lived in plywood huts surrounded by earthen barriers and coils of concertina wire, led by Kuhn, 23 years old, a first lieutenant two years out of West Point with a boyish face that seldom needed a razor. Together with an Afghan army platoon, they spent their days scanning the valleys and ridges of Kunar province for an elusive foe. They had come up the mountain that late April afternoon searching for enemy firing positions and infiltration routes and the bodies of the men they may have killed several days earlier.
The attack had started in the day's last light, as the sun tucked behind the ridgeline. A dozen Taliban fighters crept around the back side of the mountain. They hid behind giant rocks and fired at the American and Afghan soldiers. Machine-gun rounds zipped into the camp, slicing holes in sandbags. Hatchet had launched a fast defense, ripping into the hillside with automatic weapons. A mortar team lobbed rounds at the attackers, and jets dropped three 2,000-pound bombs, which fell on the ridgeline far above, along a likely escape route. Shock waves rolled through the camp, and shrapnel spun through the air overhead.
Maybe the attack was a response to the taunting. That winter, Kuhn had marched a patrol six hours through knee-deep snow to a nearby summit and nailed a wooden sign to a tree. In Pashto it read, "Attention Al Qaeda and Taliban. This mountain is claimed by the 2nd Kandek and 6/4 Cav. If you have the courage to fight, OP Hatchet is this way." The Afghan army lieutenant shimmied up the tree and hung a small Afghan flag.
The Taliban intended to overrun Hatchet and seize the weapons and ammunition, but they underestimated the size of the force: 24 Americans and 30 Afghans. A local farmer later told the Afghan platoon that the Taliban had thought the Americans had left the mountain. And they'd planned on a larger assault force. More fighters were still walking up the mountain when the attack started. They too had trouble moving through the terrain, stymied by steep grades, loose rocks, and long climbs. As 6/4's commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Markert, had told me, "you underestimate the ability of these mountains to break you into pieces and grind you into dust." After months of leading and sometimes losing men in this terrain where small units often operate far from resupply and reinforcements, deep in enemy-controlled areas he'd distilled a simple lesson: "Be patient and be careful, because you can get your ass handed to you pretty quickly."
The U.S. military once had a specialized unit for this type of fighting, drawn from a mix of woodsmen, Ivy League skiers, world-famous alpinists, and Olympic athletes. During World War II, the 10th Mountain Division trained for two years in the Colorado Rockies, learning to ski and climb, assault ridgelines, and build snow shelters. They used fixed ropes to scale rock faces and rigged pulley systems to hoist machine guns, mortars, and ammunition up mountainsides and evacuate casualties. In 1945, the division joined the war in Italy, where they scaled the Apennine Range at night, overran the Germans' ridgeline defenses, and helped revive the stalled Allied advance.
After the war, the military didn't see a need for this kind of fighting and deactivated the division in 1958. Reactivated in 1985, it became just another infantry unit, alpine specialists in name only. I served with the 10th Mountain Division a few years ago, and we didn't train a day on mountain warfare. We focused instead on desert and urban combat, which is what we saw in Iraq.