Fire on the Mountain
In the rugged eastern provinces of Afghanistan, where peaks rise thousands of feet on all sides and the next valley is a world away, American troops are engaged in a kind of alpine warfare not seen for decades. Months can go by without combat, but when you're patrolling terrain as dangerous and unpredictable as the enemy, the calm is often shattered when you least expect it.
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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.
I had flown up to Hatchet to see what these modern alpine soldiers were up against. I had been in the mountains before but always on backpacking trips, leisurely treks on ridgetop trails. And I'd been on hundreds of combat patrols during my two tours as an infantryman in Iraq, but those were on flat ground, walking through farm fields and neighborhoods. I could scan rooftops for snipers and trash piles for hidden bombs without worrying that a misstep might send me over a cliff. In Afghanistan, the first few minutes of the patrol told me it was a very different kind of warfare. I struggled up the hillside, sliding on the gravel with each step. Though we were only at 5,000 feet, my lungs demanded air while my body armor constricted my chest. I was more focused on finding handholds and footholds than scanning ridgelines for someone planning to shoot me.
I carried about 30 pounds, far less than the others. With body armor, helmet, weapon, ammunition, grenades, water, and medical supplies, each U.S. soldier humped at least 50 pounds. Some loads were double that. And the patrol, out for just a few hours, traveled relatively light. Kuhn knew the enemy could easily outmaneuver his men. He paused between steps and sucked in a breath. “If we don't kill them when they're shooting at us, we're not going to catch up to them,” he said. “We can walk around all day and hope, but if they don't want to fight us here, they'll just wait until we get home to shoot at us.”
For young leaders like Kuhn, responsible for 50-plus men, mountain topography makes every decision more complicated. How will wounded men get off the mountain? (A medevac helicopter could take an hour or more to arrive and might not have anywhere to land.) What's the right balance between traveling light and carrying enough firepower to repel an ambush? And what route to take? Choose the easiest path and soldiers will move faster, sure of foot. But since it's one of few trails, the enemy will know just where the patrol is headed. Take a new route, crossing more extreme terrain, and the chance of injury rises. “Do you pattern yourself and take that risk?” Kuhn wondered. “Or do you risk someone falling off the mountain?”
He'd taken a new route that day, much steeper than the established path. Halfway up, with the men winded and still far from the ridgeline, Kuhn recalculated the risk. We'd take our chances on the trail.
The war in Afghanistan is often called an “economy-of-force effort,” meaning you'd like more of everything, but you do the best with what you have and place limited resources where they can have the most dramatic effect. For the past several years, more troops have been needed everywhere as the military made do in the shadow of Iraq. Thirty thousand reinforcements have arrived since early 2009, which has swelled U.S. troop levels to more than 60,000 and the overall NATO force to more than 90,000. General Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has called for still more troops, without which he says the war could be lost.
McChrystal, who has shifted America's focus from killing insurgents to protecting civilians, also wants to withdraw from some sparsely populated areas and bulk up forces around the cities. Commanders hope the influx and redistribution will give them the forces needed to implement a classic counterinsurgency strategy: Clear areas of enemy fighters, then hold that land and protect the populace while building up the local economy, government, and security forces. The Obama administration plans to more than double the Afghan army and police, to 400,000, an expansion that will take several years. In the meantime, foreign soldiers fill in the gaps, which are many and wide.
The new troops have funneled mostly into southern Afghanistan, the Taliban and poppy-growing heartland, and the provinces around the capital, Kabul. But some have also landed in the mountains of the east, where fighters flow across the porous border and shelter in remote valleys. There, the war grinds on, eight years in. “Right now, we're containing the enemy,” Colonel John Spiszer told me last spring from his office in Jalalabad, 90 miles east of Kabul. “We're keeping him occupied.” Spiszer had just returned from a memorial service at an outpost in the Korengal Valley, a particularly violent pocket of Kunar province, where one of his soldiers had been killed in a Taliban ambush. Commanding the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division, which includes the 450 soldiers of the 6/4 Cavalry, Spiszer had about 5,000 troops spread across four provinces. But the jewel was Nangarhar, with its broad river valleys, fertile land, and good roads. The province has most of the region's population, and violence has been relatively low. In the “clear, hold, build” strategy of counterinsurgency, Nangarhar had progressed to the latter two. Spiszer's other provinces lagged further behind, especially Kunar and Nuristan, where soldiers often can't reach the people they're supposed to keep safe, while their mountain outposts serve as beacons for insurgents.
In October 2009, a massive Taliban attack on one of the Nuristan outposts would bring these vulnerabilities into sharper relief, just as the Obama administration debated whether to ramp up or scale back the war. The fight, which involved 300 insurgents, took place in one of the very areas from which McChrystal planned to withdraw. Eight U.S. soldiers, several Afghan police, and more than 100 attackers were killed.
“The question is,” Spiszer said in the spring, “if I wasn't up there, would they still be fighting? I don't know.” Some insurgents, locals who just don't like having American troops in their backyard, would certainly quit fighting. But many others are mainline Taliban crossing the mountain passes from Pakistan and using the remote areas as sanctuaries to train and stage operations. Without the distraction of the outposts, Spiszer figured, the violence would migrate south into the population centers and put at risk hard-won gains. The war won't be won in the mountains, but failure here could keep the Americans, NATO, and the Afghan government from turning the tide elsewhere. So for soldiers like Kuhn, the war is little changed. They try to secure the roads and stymie the transit of arms and fighters. They train Afghan security forces and work with local governments to build roads, schools, and power plants. And they play this simple and unenviable role: giving the insurgents someone to shoot at.
To see these targets up close, I leapfrogged from Bagram Airfield to Jalalabad to Forward Operating Base Bostick, in the Kunar River Valley, and then, when the thunderstorms had blown through, flew into Hatchet. I shared the helicopter with a load of care packages, the first mail Recon platoon had received in a month. The military depends heavily on helicopters for moving troops and materiel into the most rugged areas of Afghanistan. When the weather turns or helicopters are needed elsewhere, outposts can go weeks without resupply. The boxes were welcome, but the helicopter didn't bring any cooking oil, a huge disappointment to the soldiers, who now had chicken fingers and French fries a favorite but no way to cook them.
After so long in the field, few meals still tasted good. Kuhn and his men had been told they'd be at Hatchet for a couple of months, which stretched into a year. For the first three months, they lived in earthen caves and spent their waking hours either on guard duty or building defenses. They filled thousands of sandbags, strung coils of wire, and hacked down trees to clear their weapons' fields of fire. They ate prepackaged field rations and had little communication with the outside world. Life improved this past fall, when engineers brought a lumberyard's worth of wood slung from the bellies of helicopters and built guard towers, sleeping quarters, an aid station, and a recreation room. Through a satellite link, the soldiers could call home and surf the Internet, and around Christmas the Army gave them an Xbox, with which they stabbed, blew up, and shot each other playing Call of Duty 4.
The black beating heart of anxiety pounds in the ears in the small hours of the night, when soldiers stare at once familiar rocks and trees, turned trippy green in the fuzz of night vision, imagining annihilation.
The flesh-and-blood enemy remained elusive. Nine months into their deployment, Hatchet had been attacked only a few times, and frustration brewed. The soldiers were highly trained scouts and snipers, able to kill a man from half a mile away or more, and many felt their skills could be better used. “You spend all that time training for the game,” Kuhn said, “you don't want to sit on the bench.” But that's the way of war in the mountains, hot and cold. Insurgents might hammer a camp for weeks, then leave it alone. And while many soldiers wish for combat, once they've seen it, some long for it to end. Several miles up the valley from Hatchet, two 6/4 outposts had been attacked relentlessly, sometimes twice a day, with RPG, machine-gun, and sniper fire. Those outposts are so low in the valley that when soldiers return fire, they shoot at 45-degree angles. They'd been mortared so many times that when they heard the thump of a launch up in the mountain, they knew they had 40 seconds until impact. I met a soldier who'd been blown out of his bunk one night by an RPG and had been in enough firefights to lose count. “I didn't know what an anxiety attack was before I came here,” he said. When he slept, he dreamed bad dreams. The pills prescribed by the Army doc helped, sometimes.
The black beating heart of that anxiety pounds in the ears in the small hours of the night, when soldiers stare at once familiar rocks and trees, turned trippy green in the fuzz of night vision, imagining annihilation, a wave of men rushing toward the camp in a crazed attack. Such dread is not unwarranted. The Taliban have refined this blunt and terrifying tactic, massing by the hundreds and assaulting remote outposts, using manpower to overcome technological deficits. The positions are sometimes defended by just a platoon, and while the Taliban had yet to completely overrun an outpost, they had come very close. In one 2008 attack southwest of Hatchet, attackers killed nine of the 45 American defenders and wounded 27, a casualty rate of 75 percent.
With small units surrounded in the mountains, far from reinforcements, firepower is the great equalizer, the reason defenders survive and a reassurance that keeps the men from losing their minds. The outposts bristle with heavy machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, and mortar tubes. The larger bases can lob 90-pound artillery shells from 20 miles away, and attack helicopters and jets often arrive within minutes. In more populated areas of Afghanistan, the military, wary of hitting civilians, restricts the types of weapons that can be used. But out in the mountains, the fights turn into free-for-alls. And some of those battles have become so desperate, the enemy so close, that soldiers have called in air strikes on their own positions.
Kuhn walked just ahead of me up the steep slope.
“Is there a danger of mines on this trail?” I asked.
“Don't know,” he said. “I haven't stepped on one yet.”
A soldier radioed down from ahead. Maruf Samy, the senior Afghan sergeant, thought he'd found a booby trap. Kuhn picked his way up the hill and met Samy next to a thin wire that stretched between two trees. Samy handed Kuhn a small green tube—not an explosive, as Samy surmised, but an American trip flare. Kuhn laughed. “There's nothing like having a guy walk up to you, say 'IED,' and put something in your hand.”
After handing over the suspected IED, or “improvised explosive device,” Samy climbed the mountain in easy strides, rejoining his soldiers, but the Americans slowed, then stopped. Specialist Thomas Hunter winced and kneaded his left thigh. “I'm cramping up,” he muttered. With his body armor, machine gun, and 700 rounds of ammunition, he carried more than 100 pounds. Even without falls, the mountains are hard on soldiers.
Specialist Benjamin Hart sat Hunter down and slid a needle into his arm. The IV bag of saline solution would rehydrate his muscles. Hart had given Kuhn and five others IVs before the patrol as a precaution. As the platoon medic, he played the den mother, always checking on the men. For everything from fevers to gunshot wounds, he was the only medical care for miles, a responsibility that weighed heavily on him, especially in the beginning, 19 years old and fresh from training.
“Everybody good?” he asked.
The answers came back, rapid-fire:
“My toe hurts.”
“My back hurts.”
“I have a rock in my shoe.”
Hart rolled his eyes and laughed. “I'm done with you guys,” he said.
We sat nearby on a rock outcropping, waiting for the bag to drain into Hunter, and gazed at the deep bowls of snow in Pakistan. A snowboarder's paradise, suggested Staff Sergeant Desmond McClellan, a squad leader from Wetumpka, Alabama.
Specialist Joshua Rivers scoffed. A Texas flatlander, he'd spent little time in the mountains, which was fine by him. “I swear to God, I don't want to see another mountain after this deployment,” he said. “I don't even want to see a hill.”
“I don't think the mountains would be so bad if we didn't have all this weight,” McClellan said.
“I don't think the mountains would be so bad if I wasn't here,” Rivers said.
While the military no longer has a dedicated alpine unit, it still teaches mountain warfare at a Marine Corps school near Bridgeport, California, and an Army school in Jericho, Vermont. Spiszer's brigade sent about 60 soldiers to Jericho before the summer 2008 deployment. Much of the course focused on managing heavy loads and moving safely across dangerous terrain. Students learned basic fixed-rope work and mountain first aid but also how to use and care for pack animals. The Marine Corps has taught a pack-animal course since the early eighties, when the CIA sent the mujahedeen thousands of mules to ferry supplies through the mountains in their fight against the Soviets.
Such a skill seems archaic in the age of helicopters, but many outposts in Afghanistan are still resupplied in part by donkey. Indeed, a few days spent there explains why Afghans have been such successful fighters over the centuries. Watch how the goat herder moves across the slopes, as surefooted as his animals, climbing the same passes since childhood. “We live in the mountains,” Khalis Safy, the Afghan platoon leader at Hatchet, had told me the day before the patrol up the mountain. “Our fight is in the mountains. Our homes are in the mountains. Our jobs are in the mountains. It's a habit for us.”
The Afghans had invited me for tea on their side of the camp, separated from the American quarters by the helicopter landing zone. We crowded into the small, dark room, quarters for nine men. Wood smoke hung in the air and shafts of sunlight streamed in through a small window. A junior soldier poured the chai, and Safy told us stories of his days fighting the Taliban under the famed mujahedeen commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. “We would have two or three guys, fighting maybe 100. Shoot and move. Shoot and move,” he said, essentially describing the way the Taliban fights today. “At that time, everyone respected us,” Safy said. “Now, when we're out in this area, we get hard looks from the people.”
Sergeant Samy pointed out two longstanding problems: The people are too poor, and the government is too corrupt. “If there were more jobs in these areas, they wouldn't fight,” he said. “Most of the Taliban just fight for money. For some poor people, if they're in the Afghan army, and the Taliban offers them more money, maybe they'd go to the Taliban.”
In a land long ruled by tribes, fostering allegiance to an institution like a national army is difficult. The quality of the soldiers is uneven, both at the lower ranks, with soldiers inadequately prepared and resourced for battle, and the higher ranks, with appointments sometimes based on cronyism. Kuhn told me he trusted and respected Safy and Samy, and met with them regularly to coordinate patrols, but most of his platoon at Hatchet had little interaction with the Afghans.
America's war in Afghanistan won't end until the insurgency is beaten or Afghan security forces can take over the fight, and much money has been spent making them a more competent, professional force. But Samy figured the fighting would continue, with or without the Americans, no matter the quality of the forces, because war had been woven into the fabric of life. “All of our history is fighting,” he said. The British. The Russians. The Taliban. “We'll see who's next.”
Back on the patrol, Hunter, full of fluids, picked up his machine gun. Everyone groaned and pushed to their feet. “I don't mind coming up, but thinking about going down just pisses me off. It's hard on my knees,” William Pinciotti, a thick-necked sniper, told McClellan. “I'm getting too old for this shit.”
“Too old?” McClellan said, his Alabama drawl pulling and stretching the words. “You're like 25.”
After another half-hour of climbing, a few slides on loose rock, and a near collision with 50 charging goats, we reached the mountain's spine. No one had bothered to shoot at the patrol, and the patrol had found no one to shoot. From the ridgeline above Hatchet, the sweat-soaked scouts studied the valley on the back side of their mountain, where a smattering of houses made up a small village. A newer white house clung to the mountainside several hundred feet up the opposite side of the valley. The platoon had started calling it the Taliban House after Afghan soldiers told them it was owned by insurgents. A plume of white smoke rose from the house's courtyard.
“Smoke signals,” Kuhn said.
“Who's Indian up here?” McClellan asked.
“I'm part Indian,” Rivers said.
“What's he saying?”
“One-five-five rounds, land here,” Rivers said, referring to the 155-millimeter howitzers at Forward Operating Base Bostick, ten miles down the valley. Before the platoon started its descent back to Hatchet, where the cook had dinner waiting, Rivers and McClellan plotted the coordinates of the house, should they ever have a reason to blow it up.
Intelligence reports said there were enemy fighters in that valley, maybe the men who'd attacked Hatchet the week before. It was just a couple of miles away, but getting there would require such an expenditure of resources that it was essentially off-limits to Kuhn's men. Likewise, the Taliban would like to attack Hatchet more often, but according to intel gathered from locals, it was simply too hard to cross the mountain with weapons that could do real damage and too hard to gain a decent vantage from which to attack. So the two sides had settled into a strange stalemate.
That scenario is common throughout the remote provinces, not just in Hatchet's little corner of the war. At dinner one night at FOB Bostick, after I'd caught a helicopter off the mountain a few days after the patrol, an intelligence officer told me he confronted those geographical obstacles daily as he plied locals for information. “People tell me all the time, 'I know where the bad guys are.' OK, show me. And they'll point somewhere way off in the mountains. Well, I can't go there.”
Though 6/4 Cavalry was responsible for an enormous swath of land, it controlled very little of it. An army doesn't need to own everything, just key pieces of terrain, but the mountains make it difficult. Captain Jay Bessey, 31, commander of 6/4's Charlie Troop, patrolled a ten-mile section of road the only main road in the region starting just below FOB Bostick and running along the Kunar River to the southern border of the Ghaziabad District. His influence stretched up the hillsides a bit, a corridor a mile or two wide in places, depending on the severity of the terrain. But only a third of the people lived near the road. The rest were in areas accessible only by small pickup truck or, more likely, by foot. “If two-thirds of the people are unaffected by us, that leaves them open to the other guys,” he said.
To influence these areas, Bessey needed proxies, and he took me to them: 20 men who could help end the war, stroking long beards and drinking purple Gatorade in the shade of a gazebo. Bessey had invited the men members of a local shura, like a town council to FOB Bostick to discuss development projects: roads, schools, clinics, and power plants. This was the softer side of counterinsurgency, and it could be frustrating for hard-charging officers like Bessey, trained to “close with and destroy the enemy,” in Army parlance. American soldiers can keep killing and arresting insurgents, but Afghanistan won't have lasting stability if local forces can't protect the people, if the government is mired in corruption.
The shura members had their own agenda, certainly, and some had Taliban in their families, which made their support all the more critical. Without local leaders' participation, efforts often failed. Running smoothly, development should have looked something like this: The shura requested a project from the district governor, who conducted an open bidding process, awarded a contract, then monitored the work to make sure it was done correctly. When local government recommended and oversaw projects, the work was more likely to be finished, the money less likely to be stolen, and the school, clinic, or power plant less likely to be blown up.
The road was so narrow in spots that when I looked down I saw only water. “I don’t have a fear of heights,” said the gunner. “I have a fear of being spattered into unrecognizable red matter.”
“If the people of Ghaziabad take ownership of the project, there will be fewer problems. They need to take care of it as they would their own house,” Captain Bill Evans told the men. In America, Evans, 43, works as a Los Angeles firefighter. But here, as head of an Army Reserves civil-affairs team, he oversaw development projects and coached officials on governance. His manner was both gregarious and blunt, backslaps and loud laughs. He worked to distinguish himself from the other soldiers as more diplomat than gunslinger. But he would not be a pushover. “If they lie to me, they're dead to me,” he told me privately. Evans liked the men of the shura, most of them at least, but needed them to understand that American largesse had limits.
Over the past year, the military had funded $1.3 million worth of development projects in Ghaziabad and surrounding areas and millions more in prior years. Many had not borne fruit. “Of the 11 micro-hydro projects, I've been told all of them have been started,” Bessey told the council. “However, I've seen no evidence of progress.” He was cutting off funding for all but five of the projects, those that he could inspect himself.
That problem could be alleviated by accomplishing something that's a cornerstone of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: improving existing roads and building new ones into what are now off-limits areas. Local construction crews are widening and smoothing the main road and will eventually pave it, which will lengthen the reach of both the security forces and local government. The shura members were also eager for better roads into the nearby Helgal and Darin valleys.
“Is security going to be a problem in Darin like it is in Helgal?” Evans asked them.
The district governor shook his head, a determined no. “Things are good there,” he said.
Evans leaned toward me. “Things are not good there,” he said in a hushed voice. “This is the same thing they tell you every time. And 99 percent of the time there's a problem.”
In flatter parts of Afghanistan, a driver might avoid dangerous areas by taking a different route. But in these mountains, if you drive, you drive Route California. A few days earlier, gunmen had stopped two Afghan trucks carrying road-building equipment a few miles south of FOB Bostick, yanked out the drivers, and burned the trucks and cargo. This is low-hanging fruit for the insurgents: The road represents government legitimacy and the state's ability to provide for its citizens, and when work stops, the people lose faith that promises will be fulfilled.
To deter attacks, Bessey was building a checkpoint in a field between the river and the road. On a cloudy afternoon two days after the shura meeting, he and his boss, Lieutenant Colonel Markert, waded through the summer wheat and planned the defenses. From there they could more easily control movement through the area, but the position would be vulnerable to attack from across the road, where a hill rose several hundred feet. Markert raised his rifle to his eye and scanned the ridgeline through his scope. He watched a girl in a bright-red robe pick berries. “You have to strike a balance,” he said, “between owning the highest ground and being where you can influence the population.”
They would put a smaller observation position on the ridgeline, to guard against fighters moving in from a valley running perpendicular to the road. That had happened several months earlier, when insurgents lined the hillside and ambushed Markert and his men as they drove past. The attackers fired RPGs and machine guns at the convoy and within minutes had disabled eight of the 12 humvees. Rounds tore through the trucks, killing engines and flattening tires as drivers tried to push through the kill zone.
While driving back to camp, I worried less about an ambush than simply falling into the river. I rode in a “mine-resistant, ambush-protected” vehicle, or MRAP, a 15-ton truck designed to deflect IED blasts. The road was so narrow in spots, the trucks tires so close to the edge, that when I looked down I saw only water, 100 feet below. The river, swollen with snowmelt, crashed over rocks and swirled in dull-chocolate eddies. Through the other window I saw rock face.
The driver, Specialist Bryan Leigh, threaded our course, gingerly.
“I can't wait to get home and drive my car on pavement,” he said.
“You mean you don't like driving a big, boxy, top-heavy vehicle on unimproved roads along a sheer cliff?” Bessey asked.
“My only consolation,” Leigh said, “is having people with a fear of heights in the truck.”
The gunner, Private First Class Brian Jones, broke in over the intercom. “I don't have a fear of heights,” he said. “I have a fear of being spattered into unrecognizable red matter.”
They dissected our chances of surviving a plunge into the water. This hadn't happened in the area yet, which seemed amazing, given the weight of the trucks and the state of the road. The truck would stay intact, they figured, but bouncing equipment would break bodies. And if we did survive the fall, we'd be stuck in a metal box sinking to the bottom of a river. I stopped looking out the window.
The next day I drove north with Headquarters Troop, far up the valley to the Gowardesh Bridge, which had been controlled by the Taliban until two years before and was being guarded by the Afghan Border Police. This stretch of road had seen little serious fighting recently, only because the Americans hadn't been using it. In planning the previous patrol to the bridge, a month earlier, Captain Paul Roberts had briefed his Afghan army counterparts. That night, Kuhn's men at Hatchet saw four men down in the valley, digging in the road. An American patrol hadn't gone up that road in weeks, yet here was an IED team. Someone had talked. Kuhn's men watched the four diggers, and another four on the mountainside, until air strikes killed them.
Roberts assumed there would be enemy contact during this patrol, a hunch reinforced when 6/4 called with new intel: Insurgents had been watching our patrol and planned to attack us once we'd driven into the tighter sections. A few soldiers traded “Here we go again” glances. Being told you're about to be shot at elicits a predictable rawness of the nerves. But there was also anticipation, the game about to begin.
We left the two MRAPs behind, because the road would be barely wide enough and strong enough for the five armored humvees. The Afghans rode in unarmored pickup trucks. The valley narrowed in spots to a canyon. Water roared through rapids, a few feet from the trucks. We had no room to turn around or pass an immobilized vehicle.
“Good spot for an ambush,” said our driver, Staff Sergeant Jean-Francois Frenette. “Very tight fit, a lot of rock to hide behind.”
Captain Evans scanned the rock face across the river. The gunner, Sergeant James Romero lanky, earnest, and at that moment very, very nervous craned his neck back and looked straight up. The machine gun attached to the turret was useless here. Romero couldn't raise it beyond a 45-degree angle. He used his M4 rifle to cover the cliff.
Before the patrol, Romero had asked if I was comfortable operating the humvee's M240 machine gun, in case he went down. No problem, I said. I'd fired one many times. Still, he gave me a quick refresher, said it would make him feel better. As we drove through the valley, as Romero scanned the cliffs, I found that diligence a comfort.
“How's your view?” Evans called to Romero.
“Fuck this,” Romero said. “I hate this spot.”
The patrol moved in “bounding overwatch”: While the first section of vehicles advanced, the second section covered the cliffs. We inchwormed through the tricky stretches, and when we could be seen from above, the mountaintop OPs kept an eye on us. At the bridge, the border police said they'd been attacked the previous night, a common occurrence. But they were still holding the bridge, which kept the Taliban occupied harassing them and eliminated a key transit route for weapons and fighters. This saved the Americans from having to do it all themselves, which they couldn't, even if they wanted to. Roberts drank tea with the police commander and we left, back down the valley, with Romero freaked by the cliffs.
No one ambushed us, which surprised everyone. Maybe it would happen the next time, or the time after that, because the interests there were incompatible: The Americans wanted a secure road; the Taliban wanted unencumbered movement.
“We know it's coming,” Roberts said.
The attack did come, and it was devastating. Several days after our patrol, Roberts led a huge push into the area, Operation Bear Hunt, and expected a fight, yet his men didn't fire a shot. Maybe the enemy had known the Americans were coming in force and decided to lie low. Maybe they had their own plans. On the day Bear Hunt ended, the Taliban hit Bari Alai, a mountaintop OP several miles to the south. Unlike Hatchet, Bari Alai was occupied only by a 25-man Afghan army platoon, along with three American and four Latvian advisers. An estimated 100 insurgents had massed in the darkness and attacked at dawn. While machine-gun teams raked the outpost, more fighters climbed up the mountain, blew a hole through the wire, and rushed into the camp. A few soldiers would have been on guard, but many were probably sleeping when the attack started a nightmare realized.
The outpost had been established two months earlier, to cut off the Helgal and Darin valleys as safe havens for fighters and weapons from Pakistan, and it had come under fire regularly but always from a distance. The Americans and Latvians answered those volleys with symphonies of mortars, artillery, helicopter gunships, and jet fighters, pulverizing the mountainside with high explosives. But with attackers rushing the camp, then inside the wire, with stunned soldiers scurrying for weapons and body armor, the sophisticated tools of war were useless. This was a close-in fight, chaotic. Staff Sergeant William Vile fired at the attackers as he called for reinforcements and air support over the radio. Both arrived, too late. Vile, the other two Americans, two Latvians, and three Afghan soldiers were dead. Another Latvian was wounded, along with several Afghans. When reinforcements flew up to the outpost that morning, they found it destroyed and on fire, the survivors half buried in the rubble. For the first time during the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban had completely overrun a coalition outpost.
The attackers had gathered up 11 of the surviving Afghan soldiers and an interpreter and marched them into the Helgal Valley. Several days later, when the Americans pushed hundreds of troops into the valley, the Taliban released their prisoners, which seemed odd to the Americans and reinforced an unsettling suspicion: Some of the Afghan soldiers had been complicit in the attack or had given up almost immediately. Had it been an American unit at Bari Alai, they would have fought to the death, as they nearly have on several occasions in the mountains.
Before going up to Hatchet, I had shared a tent with several Latvian soldiers returning from leave, including a sergeant named Arnis who'd been stationed at Bari Alai. He slept on the bunk next to mine. The Latvians had partnered with soldiers from the Michigan National Guard to mentor the Afghan army. Before deploying, they'd trained together for months, climbing mountains in Slovakia, Austria, and the Republic of Georgia. They told me about the challenges of mountain warfare, the tradeoffs between safety and maneuverability, and all the rest. But the biggest problem they encountered was their Afghan counterparts. It wasn't just that they'd sometimes smoke marijuana at night or neglect to carry water on patrols and then ask the advisers for water during halts. The Latvians simply didn't trust them. Maybe a quarter are competent, motivated soldiers, they said, and then suggested that the rest would walk away from the camp if they weren't surrounded by miles of wilderness inhabited by people who would just as soon kill them as help them.
“Do you feel safe?” I asked Arnis as we sat on our cots, waiting for clear weather so the helicopters could ferry us into the mountain.
“No,” he said, “of course not.”
Arnis and I were lucky. He didn't return to Bari Alai but was shuffled to a different outpost. I had wanted to visit Bari Alai but ran out of time. On the day I returned home, I heard about the attack, in the barest of details: massive assault, eight dead, many wounded. But as more information trickled out, the story got worse and worse. Soldiers told me a near-by OP had been abandoned by Afghan soldiers the day before, then used by insurgents as a staging ground and firing position for the assault on Bari Alai. And many of the Claymore mines that ringed the outpost for perimeter defense hadn't been detonated during the fight, because the wires had been deactivated from inside the camp.
That sort of treachery, mercifully rare in Afghanistan, is an inescapable risk of building and mentoring local forces. Such are the wars we fight today in this slow slog of counterinsurgency, when winning strategies require uncomfortable levels of exposure and trust and lead to the occasional terrible day. So add that to the worries that fester for soldiers in the mountains, staring at the same rocks and trees and ridges and draws, month after month, wondering if this will be the day, in the soft blue light before dawn, with clumps of cloud drifting through camp and the crows already squawking, when the war will charge up the mountain and wash over them. O
Brian Mockenhaupt is a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation.