In Afghanistan, A Small Force of U.S. Soldiers Guards the Gates to Kabul

Reinforcements should arrive in January, but until then, U.S. troops are trying to hold the line.

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WARDAK, AFGHANISTAN—It was a series of unfortunate events, like a "bad training center exercise, the kind of thing that never happens in real life," says Maj. Rob Fouche, the operations officer for the 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment.

U.S. soldiers from the battalion were escorting the Ghazni governor's entourage of three white sedans back from Wardak province when they were ambushed with 30 to 40 rocket-propelled grenades in a 12-mile stretch of highly contested road. A U.S. attack helicopter sent in to provide fire support for the embattled troops was hit in its tail rotor with an RPG and forced to crash land. A second convoy dispatched to the area on the heels of the attack was rocked by a car bomb.

Remarkably, no U.S. soldiers were killed in the October incident, but Wardak and its adjoining province of Logar—known collectively as the gates to Afghanistan's capital city—are currently at the center of a fight between a complex network of insurgents and U.S. forces battling it out just 40 miles southwest of Kabul. The provinces have been staging grounds for high-profile attacks both within the capital and along the highway that links Kabul to Kandahar, a once powerful symbol of progress in Afghanistan, funded by America to the tune of $270 million. It is now littered with the remnants of powerful roadside bombs. This past summer, insurgents were launching almost daily raids on convoys along Highway 1, in one case ambushing and burning 50 fuel and food trucks bound for a U.S. base and beheading seven of the drivers.

With violence escalating considerably over the past year, a skeleton force of troops on the ground has been struggling to simply "tread water," as they put it, until reinforcements arrive early next year. Today, there are only about 250 soldiers responsible for all of Wardak, an area twice the size of Rhode Island. Senior U.S. military officials repeatedly stress that for insurgents to retake Kabul, it would require far more manpower and organization than the factionalized groups here are able to muster. "But even if the capital itself isn't in danger of being taken by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, it certainly creates a perception" of being encircled, says Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corp. think tank. "I believe it's a focus of the efforts of insurgents to push in on Kabul." There is some historical baggage to contend with as well: In 1996, the Taliban came to power after capturing Wardak and blockading the capital.

Reinforcements. In an effort to demonstrate that Kabul is not under siege, the first wave of some 3,500 new U.S. troops coming into Afghanistan in January will be sent directly to Wardak and Logar to clear out insurgent sanctuaries and increase security along the highway. To that end, massive construction is underway on new helicopter landing pads, headquarters, and housing for soldiers. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, anticipates more clashes when the new troops arrive and begin to go after the insurgents. "I would expect from this winter on an increase in violence south of Kabul caused by us—caused by us and the Afghans working together," he said in a press conference. "That's a challenging area. It's one where we've not had a large amount of [NATO] forces ever, and it's one where we do believe there are significant pockets of safe havens for some of the insurgent groups." And from these safe havens, say senior military officials, insurgents continue to carry out some of the more spectacular terrorist attacks on the capital.

The Jalrez Valley has long been one of the top safe havens in Wardak. Shortly after U.S. troops arrived in the area, which they quickly dubbed "the valley of death," they encountered graffiti helpfully written in English: "We kill Americans." The battalion was warned by its predecessors to stay away from the valley. "They said, 'Don't go in there. It's dangerous,' " says Capt. Dan Schoelles, who commands the battalion's scouts. "The message we got when we got here was that Jalrez wasn't the place to be messing around." At one point, the unit that these soldiers replaced sustained 29 casualties in 30 days during a series of operations to clear out the area.