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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Drawing fire. Following the October assault on the governor's convoy, the battalion decides to launch an air assault into Wardak to clear out the area where the governor was attacked and improve security along Highway 1 in advance of the arrival of the 10th Mountain Division forces in January. The U.S. soldiers settle on a plan to simulate the governor's convoy, using his three white sedans as bait. One morning, the governor arrives at the battalion's forward operating base, after spreading the word that he is planning to drive to Kabul. Instead, he spends the day on the base while the battalion borrows his cars. Soldiers drive the convoy back into the town of Salar, trying to attract the insurgents' attention. Intelligence estimates suggest there are between 50 and 100 insurgent fighters in the area. U.S. troops plan to block insurgent exit routes and clear cache sites after what they hope will be an attack on the governor's convoy.

On the day of the assault, two Chinook helicopters deposit the soldiers in a flat plain at the base of a steep mountain range overlooking several farm fields. There is a black flag mounted on a mud-walled compound 50 feet from where the troops land, a nod to a family's solidarity with the Taliban forces in the area. A man sits atop a wall, nonchalantly adding fresh mud to the outer limits of the compound. Nearby, a farmer and a young boy irrigate their plot of land. Soldiers observe them before making their way up the steep face of a rock outcropping to watch insurgent movements and, if necessary, block escape routes. U.S. patrols scout the neighboring mountains throughout the night, looking for signs of enemy activity.

They find none. But separately, U.S. soldiers pick up intelligence that Taliban forces had been discussing a plot to mass on the same rock outcropping just before the U.S. troops planned to depart the next morning. Officers in the battalion suspect that the insurgents may have received a tip-off from local security forces, potentially compromising the operation. They had been afraid that something like this might happen. When a U.S. officer from the battalion hears that Afghan soldiers in Wardak had been formally notified of the mission ahead of time, he instructs a soldier to phone the Afghans in Wardak to tell them that the mission has been canceled. They go ahead and send the fake convoy through anyway, but the insurgents don't take the bait.

The soldiers are disappointed that they were not able to draw the enemy into a fight during this particular operation, but senior U.S. military officials say that the battalion has made important gains overall. After several operations into Wardak, troops are able to move through the province without being attacked. These inroads have come at the cost of combat stress and considerable casualties for the troops, military officials add. Roughly half of the soldiers in a unit that spent an extended time in Wardak have earned Purple Hearts. There has also been a serious investigation. In early December, a U.S. captain and sergeant in Wardak were charged with mistreating an Afghan detainee by the equivalent of a grand jury. Soldiers in the battalion declined to comment on the case but say that Wardak is difficult and tense, particularly given the few soldiers based there.

The pending arrival of more troops comes as a relief, says Maj. Christopher Faber, who had been stationed at a combat outpost in Wardak and is now deployed to neighboring Logar, on a base that at times has been rocketed for 21 out of 30 consecutive days. Currently, he adds, "neither the Afghans or the U.S. troops control" the provinces, which he attributes to a general scarcity of U.S. forces. "We can't get to places [insurgents] can. At a certain point, you're treading water," he says. "You can only do so much."

  • Read about why NATO allies may not be the answer to the military challenges in Afghanistan.