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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The new battalion quickly discovered that there still were hundreds of foreign fighters in Wardak, including Pakistanis, Chechens, and Turks—as well as an entrenched network of Taliban fighters working with a dangerous militia known as Hizb-e-Islami, run by a warlord once on the CIA's payroll.

Purple Hearts. When U.S. soldiers pushed into the valley, they paid a price. At its austere headquarters, the battalion has a dry-erase board with its Purple Heart count. The number currently stands at 94, and the battalion's work in Wardak has accounted for many of them. In two particularly difficult forays into the valley, soldiers came out with six Purple Hearts for each trip.

Schoelles estimates that every convoy that has been through the Jalrez in the past three years has been attacked. "We've never once gone in there and not been ambushed. It's just an area that hasn't had a lot of concentration on it. It's off the highway, but it's so close to Kabul that it's an enemy centerpiece."

The insurgents have also used the rugged geography to help neutralize the U.S. technological advantage. This has been particularly the case in the Jalrez, where there is only one road in and out, surrounded by mountains. "They're patient. They wait until you're doing exactly what they want you to do, and that's when they hit you," says Sgt. 1st Class Justin Conner. "They don't hit you when you're ready, when you're at an advantage. They wait until you come into the Jalrez, where you can't go anywhere. Where they hit you on the road, you can't even turn right or left."

When a U.S. company of troops went into the Jalrez to set up a combat outpost in late spring, the soldiers fought nonstop for months. Of 70 soldiers in the company, 20 were hurt and two were killed. In June, the battalion's scout platoon was attacked with RPGs by 40 to 50 men wearing Army fatigues, says Schoelles.

Until new troops arrive, the small U.S. force is effectively outnumbered by insurgents, which "makes it a more difficult mission," says Schoelles. "It is just kind of ridiculous," he adds, explaining that troops have to contend not only with combat "but everything else"—from refereeing local disputes and negotiating with tribal chiefs to leading Afghan National Army units.

The battalion has done what it can with the numbers it has. Often, troops here add, they have made significant progress clearing out areas and gathering intelligence that has led to vital takedowns. When Capt. Caleb Threadcraft, who speaks fluent Dari, was greeted with hostility by elders in Wardak, he asked them what country he was in, explaining that he was unaccustomed to such a lack of hospitality. The battalion later surmised that the elders of the village had cut a deal with the Taliban.

Ambushes. Some of the worst violence came over the summer. It was in a town called Salar last June that the 50 trucks were attacked and seven drivers beheaded. Two days later, three National Guard soldiers were ambushed and killed after their vehicles were hit with roadside bombs and RPGs in the nearby Tangi Valley. "You hear rumors that you don't go in there with less than six vehicles. So when we heard the report that these people lost two vehicles, we knew it was bad," says Schoelles. He brought his scouts and 90 Afghan National Army soldiers to recover the bodies, which had been dismembered. "It's hard to describe, but they're not really bodies anymore," he says. "You recognize the socks."

In mid-October, the battalion carried out an operation into the troubled Jalrez Valley and a neighboring town called Nerkh, long considered an insurgent safe haven. There, soldiers discovered plastic explosives, pressure plates, and rockets, at one point following a pile of sand with wires running through it to an orchard, where an improvised explosive device was rigged with mortars. During 10 hours of fighting, troops killed more than 50 insurgents and at one point weathered a volley of RPG fire that left four U.S. soldiers wounded, one critically. They also learned that over 100 insurgents were seeking medical treatment in neighboring towns.