SUR­VIV­ING HINDU KUSH Tal­iban, in­sur­gents lurk near out­posts

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY RICHARD TOMKINS

CHESHAN GHAR, Afghanistan | It’s dis­con­cert­ing to stand in a quiet val­ley of the Hindu Kush moun­tains and hear ar­tillery shells break the si­lence and pound nearby ridges, tar­get­ing gun­men who may be ly­ing in wait to am­bush U.S. forces.

A shell’s im­pact ex­plodes in flames and smoke, of course, but it’s only sec­onds later that one hears the sound of det­o­na­tion: loud and in­tense for just a brief mo­ment, then rapidly echo­ing away into si­lence.

It’s the same with the deaf­en­ing vol­leys of 50-cal­iber ma­chine­gun fire at caves and other likely hid­ing spots: sight of im­pact, sound de­layed, anx­ious sol­diers at­tempt­ing to keep po­ten­tial at­tack­ers at bay in a place that’s as beau­ti­ful as it is deadly.

“I don’t want to stay here too long,” said Army Capt. Paco Bryant. “The longer we stay, the more time we give [the Tal­iban] to gather and at­tack. The faster we get this job done the bet­ter.”

Capt. Bryant is com­man­der of Char­lie Com­pany, 1st Bat­tal­ion, 32nd In­fantry Reg­i­ment, which is part of the 10th Moun­tain Divi­sion in north­east­ern Afghanistan’s Ku­nar prov­ince.

The com­pany was pa­trolling not far from where eight U.S. sol­diers died over the Oct. 3-4 week­end dur­ing a fe­ro­cious 13-hour fire­fight with in­sur­gents in Nuris­tan prov­ince near the AfghanPak­istan bor­der.

It is also near Wanat, the site of a July 2008 bat­tle in which a small out­post was nearly over­run by Tal­iban and nine U.S. troops were killed.

The com­man­der of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal, re­port­edly plans to close such iso­lated out­posts in the rugged and scarcely in­hab­ited hin­ter­land near the Pak­istani bor­der and con­sol­i­date forces in more pop­u­lated ar­eas as part of a re­vised “hearts-and­minds” coun­terin­sur­gency pro­gram.

“In a coun­try as large and com­plex as Afghanistan, [the In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Force] can’t be ev­ery­where,” Gen. McChrys­tal wrote in an Aug. 30 as­sess­ment to De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates. “ISAF must fo­cus its full range of civil­ian and mil­i­tary re­sources where they will have the great­est ef­fect on the peo­ple.”

In the mean­time, units like Capt. Bryant’s con­tinue their mis­sions.

His unit is based at Com­bat Out­post (COP) Monti in the prov­ince’s As­mar district, about six miles from the district cap­i­tal of Asadabad. He made the com­ment about not stay­ing too long dur­ing a mis­sion to clear away the burned wreck­age of a half­dozen trucks that were block­ing Route Stet­son, the only road from the COP to For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base (FOB) Bo­stick and the Nishigam district about 18 miles north.

The Afghan trucks, es­corted by a U.S. ve­hi­cle, had been de­stroyed the day be­fore in an am­bush. An es­ti­mated two dozen gun­men took po­si­tions on op­po­site ridges at a point where the dirt road — which is no more than 12 feet at the widest point — nar­rowed at a horse­shoe-shaped bend and opened fire with mor­tars, rocket-pro­pelled grenades and small arms.

“It’s like shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel,” Capt. Bryant said of at­tacks along the road. “The driv­ers panic, trucks over­turn or crash into each other and cre­ate a huge bot­tle­neck. Noth­ing can pass un­til the wreck­age is cleared away, which means they have an­other op­por­tu­nity to shoot at coali­tion forces and cre­ate an even larger bot­tle­neck.

“Th­ese kinds of at­tacks are a win-win for them. If they can bot­tle up th­ese trucks, they get a chance to shoot at coali­tion forces, they get a chance to de­stroy coali­tion force ve­hi­cles, and they make the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion [near the am­bush sites] happy be­cause they have the chance to loot th­ese ve­hi­cles for all their con­tents as well as the equip­ment and parts of the ve­hi­cles — tires, en­gines, ev­ery­thing — that they can sell later,” he said.

Capt. Bryant and his men were part of the res­cue force in that at­tack and braved en­emy gun­fire to carry wounded Afghan driv­ers to safety. The bat­tle, he said, lasted three hours. Three Afghan civil­ians were killed and five in­jured. One U.S. sol­dier was wounded. In­sur­gent ca­su­al­ties were un­de­ter­mined.

Capt. Bryant said that on av­er­age, a quar­ter of the eight con­voys monthly in his sec­tor are am­bushed, while many oth­ers re­ceive ha­rass­ing small-arms fire.

Yet Afghan mer­chants con­tin­ued to line up out­side the base in their jin­gle trucks — a nick­name given be­cause of the noise­mak­ers with which the trucks are fit­ted — for the jour­ney. What started out as small num­ber of ve­hi­cles to sup­ply other U.S. out­posts has be­come a large goods train for Afghans as well.

Ku­nar prov­ince, like neigh­bor­ing Nuris­tan, bor­ders Pak­istan and is a main in­fil­tra­tion route for Tal­iban in­sur­gents head­ing to and from Afghanistan’s cen­tral re­gions. To­gether they have been called the “cra­dle of ji­had,” given the suc­cesses against Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion forces they en­abled in the 1980s.

In Char­lie Com­pany’s sec­tor — about 400 square miles of moun­tains and val­leys cleaved by the Ku­nar River — it’s be­lieved there are about 150 gun­men from the Tal­iban and as­so­ci­ated groups such as Hezb-i Is­lami, led by Gul­bud­din Hek­mat­yar, said an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who re­quested anonymity. In ad­di­tion, it’s be­lieved about 75 hired gun­men are spread across the sec­tor’s three dis­tricts.

Ex­cept for am­bushes, the in­sur­gents — both tran­sit­ing and res­i­dent — stay far­ther to the north and east in ar­eas that U.S. forces can’t reach be­cause of the rugged­ness of the ter­rain and their in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity to ve­hi­cles.

As much as half of Char­lie Com­pany’s sec­tor can’t be reached by mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles.

“I know where they are but can’t get to them,” Capt. Bryant said. “And what makes it worse is that I know they know that.”

The sit­u­a­tion in many other ar­eas of the prov­ince is sim­i­lar but may change soon if Gen. McChrys­tal closes iso­lated out­posts.

But un­til that hap­pens, men like those in Char­lie Com­pany will con­tinue their cur­tailed-byne­ces­sity op­er­a­tions in their 400square-mile area, which has about 100,000 peo­ple.

When not es­cort­ing ve­hi­cle con­voys, men of Char­lie Com­pany, like their Delta Com­pany coun­ter­parts at the Com­mand Out­post Fortress in the Narang district, meet with el­ders from ac­ces­si­ble vil­lages, as­sess project needs and de­sires and es­tab­lish per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with those el­ders. The goal is to wean the vil­lagers away from Tal­iban in­flu­ence and foster ties with lo­cal gov­ern­ment and Afghan forces, with whom U.S. troops con­duct op­er­a­tions.

“Here in Narang [district, pop­u­la­tion 28,000], I’d say about 90 per­cent of the peo­ple live in the val­leys farm­ing, and 10 per­cent along the bor­der with Pak­istan. Only about 1 per­cent are fight­ers. The rest are just am­biva­lent,” said 2nd Lt. Gra­ham Markiewicz at COP Fortress with Delta Com­pany, 1-32.

“But I think the projects and fos­ter­ing of re­la­tion­ships help. We’ve seen a real de­cline in at­tacks, in­clud­ing [im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices] since I got here in May. What we mainly see now in my sec­tor is some ha­rass­ing fire.”

As Capt. Bryant and his men stood watch in the val­ley by Cheshan Ghar [moun­tain], a U.S. Army bull­dozer pushed the burned-out jun­gle trucks off Route Stet­son into the Ku­nar River. No Tal­iban at­tacked as ar­tillery from COP Monti pounded the nearby ridges.

The next con­voy would pass through soon — a new op­por­tu­nity for Tal­iban vi­o­lence and for vil­lagers near the known am­bush sites to loot.

“We can’t re­ward the non­sense and shenani­gans go­ing on,” Capt. Bryant said. “If I’m go­ing through your vil­lage and get am­bushed, guess what? Your schools won’t be built, the wells won’t be dug.

“Now [vil­lagers] close to here are in­con­ve­nienced, their women and chil­dren can’t get to the hospi­tal, they have to walk to work be­cause ev­ery­thing is blocked. I’d like to leave the road blocked so they can feel the pain, but un­for­tu­nately, I can’t.”

Capt. Paco Br yant (right) scans nearby ridges for Tal­iban in­sur­gents. “The longer we stay, the more time we give [the Tal­iban] to gather and at­tack,” he said. “The faster we get this job done the bet­ter.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY RICHARD TOMKINS/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

A sol­dier looks over the wreck­age of a sup­ply con­voy Tal­iban in­sur­gents at­tacked in Afghanistan’s Ku­nar prov­ince. The prov­ince is a main in­fil­tra­tion route for Tal­iban in­sur­gents head­ing to and from Afghanistan’s cen­tral re­gions.

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