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.
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.
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."