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I first deployed to northeastern Afghanistan in the spring of 2006 as a rifle platoon leader of a 39-man light-infantry unit in the 10th Mountain Division. Our initiation to combat did not take long.  On our first convoy in April, an improvised-explosive device (IED) struck a Humvee clearing our route. The blast, which flipped the vehicle backwards and incinerated its entire front half, only caused minor injuries, but it foreshadowed a violent and difficult tour of duty. Later that month we participated in Operation Mountain Lion, the largest U.S. operation since 2002’s Operation Anaconda. For my platoon, the mission entailed a month of dismounted patrols up to elevations of 9,000 feet, combat loads exceeding 100 pounds, and sporadic, largely inconsequential firefights.

Following Mountain Lion and the departure of our Marine predecessors, my battalion implemented a major shift in operations. Rather than commuting to problem areas from large bases, we posted platoons in enemy strongholds to stay. My company assumed responsibility for the Waigul Valley, a 25-kilometer-long trough split between the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

Centered on the village of Aranas, the Waigul Valley had been serving as a sanctuary for enemy groups including Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The terrain was remote and rugged, with poor infrastructure and virtually nonexistent government. The populace was zealously religious and insular. With both American and Pakistani bases nearby but scant military presence on the ground, the area was an ideal sanctuary for insurgents.

Our mission was to establish a permanent presence in the valley, for a dual purpose. First, we aimed to kill or capture enemy leaders. But we also wanted to empower Afghan officials and security forces, and to provide basic needs such as roads, schools, and electricity. With no base, we negotiated use of an abandoned school in Aranas for one outpost, and built a second from scratch in a neighboring village called Bella. Then we set out to work.   

Achieving our objectives proved to be supremely challenging. Our soft approach, emphasizing negotiation first and the use of force as a last resort, produced mixed results. Our initial meetings with councils of elders, or shuras, created goodwill. But both sides eventually became frustrated. Local leaders denied that there were security problems in the valley, and our projects progressed sluggishly in the face of bureaucratic obstacles. The prevailing local reaction to our presence remained frosty. In contrast to the smiles, handshakes, and mobs of children that we had encountered elsewhere in Afghanistan, men stared antagonistically and women and children ran away from us in Aranas and Bella.

Moreover, the construction and maintenance of two remote mountain outposts lacking Humvee-accessible roads and sufficient flat ground for helicopter landings made for a logistical nightmare. We were forced to rely on unconventional supply methods such as air drops, sling loads, donkeys, and the purchase of local supplies. Compounding all these problems was a severe shortage of manpower and assets to effectively control the valley.

Surprisingly, we faced little enemy resistance during our first two months. Expecting to be heavily challenged upon our entry into the valley, we were engaged in only one small firefight. Our constant patrols in and around the villages were uneventful. Our intelligence indicated that we had flushed many enemy leaders and fighters to neighboring villages, where they were reportedly conducting a propaganda campaign, intimidating locals from cooperating with us, and plotting their next move. Then, on August 11, a sudden and deadly attack on one of my platoon’s patrols broke this relative calm. Caught on a narrow mountain trail between Aranas and Bella, about a dozen enemy fighters killed three and wounded three of my soldiers with RPG, machine-gun, and automatic-rifle fire in the space of 45 minutes.

Regrouping the platoon—and our relationship with the locals—was daunting. The loss of our comrades shattered our naïve feeling of invincibility and made us acutely conscious of our own mortality. After a brief mourning period, our natural inclination was to turn inward, switch into survival mode, and burn our bridges with the populace.

 

FEATURE:
Losing the Waigul Valley By Erik Malmstrom

 

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