Ambush deep in the valley of death
KALAGUSH, Nuristan province - Sergeant Mike Mathews packed his mortar system into the back of his jeep and bent over to pick up a leftover plastic wrapper as he prepared to saddle up for the three-hour ride back to base. Up the road, amid cackling chickens and amused children, naval commander Caleb Kerr and his lieutenant chuckled and bid farewell to a cheery Afghan police commander.
Aircraft surveying the rocks detected nothing unusual.
In an instant, however, the mountainside above the rocky town of Doab erupted in muzzle flashes. For the next several hours, American soldiers in a convoy of 18 vehicles scrambled for cover as rockets and mortars rained down from the mountainsides and US helicopters swept in to evacuate the injured. Along with several of his best soldiers out of Fort Hood, Texas, Lieutenant Dashielle Ballarta, 24, displayed composure in the face of fire as his mortar team fell to Taliban bullets. Indeed, over the next five hours, three insurgent commanders with an estimated four dozen fighters would ambush the American soldiers at three different locations along a road with sheer drop-offs of 300 meters.
Only the fast reactions of US soldiers and medics would avert what commanders said could well have been a "slaughter" of American and Afghan forces. In the end, the Americans would boast that "we kicked some ass up there", but the insurgents would also claim victory; dancing on the splintered remains of an abandoned US Humvee and vowing to keep the Americans from establishing a foothold north of their base in Kalagush, Nuristan.
This province, with its jagged peaks that rise two kilometers high into the blue skies above Pakistan, is known as Afghanistan's "forgotten province". But the intensity of the March 30 attack on a US military humanitarian aid convoy suggests that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have designated northern Nuristan as a key infiltration route and supply line for a growing insurgency.
Though Washington officials have castigated Pakistan for allowing al-Qaeda and Taliban "safe havens" to thrive along its own western borders, which abut Nuristan, this province's vast terrain provides a similarly strong enemy sanctuary.
"The Taliban and al-Qaeda are moving through Nuristan at will," said Lieutenant Colonel Larry Pickett, 46, a resident of McComb, Illinois, who dove for cover and took aim at the Taliban attackers in Doab, who had signaled their intentions a night earlier. "The north of the province is wide open and there is nothing to stop them."
Some Western intelligence officers and Pakistani officials believe that the insurgents in Nuristan are part and parcel of a global guerrilla movement and may be protecting important al-Qaeda figures, possibly Osama bin Laden himself. "We can't prove that Osama bin Laden is not there," said Robin Whitley, 33, a US military intelligence officer in Kalagush. "A lot of people are on the lookout for a six-foot-four Arab, but when you don't have anybody up there, you just don't know."
The convoy of 16 US Humvees and four Afghan trucks filled with security guards, left Kalagush on March 29 for a road convoy into the Doab district of Nuristan province. Leading the American contingent was naval commander Caleb Kerr, 37, who heads up Nuristan's Provincial Reconstruction Team, Lieutenant Colonel Sal Petrovia, 37, and Lieutenant Colonel Pickett. Also along for the ride were Pentagon intelligence agents, including an unarmed member of the Human Terrain Team. The overnight mission intended to meet with local Nuristani officials, look at larger development projects and assess the possibility for more assistance.
In a country of stunning vistas and rugged terrain, Nuristan has the most mountains. It has long suffered from abject poverty. Its residents, forcibly converted to Islam at the end of the 19th century, do not like foreign meddling in their affairs and they put up a ferocious resistance to the Soviet invasion in 1979 that lasted for 10 years.
But in the 1990s, Pakistani intelligence agents encouraged radical Islam and training camps that fed local and foreign guerrillas into the fight against India in disputed Kashmir. Fundamentalist clerics and their loyal militants still control key districts of the province and have moved to strengthen their iron fist here since 2004.
Despite its knowledge of the radical strongholds in Nuristan, the US military has targeted the province for humanitarian assistance. Officials estimate that there are 184 "schools" in the province, but only 30 with roofs over the heads of students.
The American strategy in Nuristan reverses the old US Marine Corps version of counter-insurgency; "clear, hold and build". It stresses building first, with the hope that Nuristanis will eventually "see the light" and side with the Afghan government.
"There is a ton of bad guys in Nuristan, but we don't have the resources to go after them all right now," said Kerr. "We will not win by killing more people."
The commander for all of eastern Afghanistan, north of the White Mountains, Colonel John Spiczer, 46, a California native, stressed in an interview that he did not have the forces to take control of Nuristan, nor would he attempt to seize it by military means any time in the near future. "To neutralize or clear the enemy out of there would take a lot more forces and air ability than we have at present," he said.
The recent fight in the Doab district illustrates the "economy of force" that the world's most powerful military still carries into battle across parts of Afghanistan.
The overnight development survey to Doab appeared to be going well until midnight when translators, who were listening to three distinct languages on radio intercepts, picked up chatter that indicated "the enemy" was planning to ambush US forces.
In the morning, meetings with senior officials continued and American engineers surveyed a new hospital and several schools.
Despite the presence of US-funded police in the town, dozens of insurgents managed to converge on the Americans from neighboring valleys, without being detected even by aerial drones specifically tasked with monitoring such movements. After seven years of careful observation, Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents have learned to attack US forces when they are in remote terrain, far from their home base and short on air power.
At 11:15 am, just when the US air cover pulled off the scene to refuel, insurgents, holed up in hidden bunkers, began to fire rockets, mortars and small arms at the largest American patrol position; a circle of jeeps with guns pointing out. Sergeant Mathews, 24, from Chicago, quickly unpacked his mortar system, but enemy fire blasted his legs out from under him.
Platoon leader Lieutenant Dashielle Ballarta sprinted over. As medics assisted two wounded soldiers, the young lieutenant grabbed the mortar and pointed it towards muzzle flashes on the mountain. "It was pretty much 'grab-and-point' as the insurgents were so close he couldn't calibrate their distance," said Lieutenant Colonel Sal Petrovia, who had raced down to join the patrol team. "Our medics were treating the wounded, Specialist Shane McMath and Sergeant Mike Mathews, for 15 minutes behind a Humvee when the opposite mountainside opened up with muzzle flashes. They had snipers and I think they had been waiting for us to move to one side of the Humvees."
After stabilizing the injured, the convoy moved down the road towards a pre-designated helicopter landing zone. A huge boulder blocked their exit. The Americans had to settle for a make-shift landing zone on a terraced wheat field, where a chopper could only send down a rope and harness.
"As we were preparing the wounded to be lifted out, we started taking fire again, this time on the retaining wall above the heads of the wounded soldiers," said Lieutenant Colonel Petrovia. "The medics, Kurt Willen, 25 and David Myers, 23, covered the bodies of the two wounded soldiers and the rescue chopper had to back away as we called in two Apaches to suppress the enemy fire."
Fighting continued as the US convoy snaked away, jeeps limping along with blown-out tires and dragging another disabled vehicle.
As the convoy negotiated switch-backs above cliff faces some four kilometers forward, insurgents launched yet another assault, rocketing the disabled vehicle, which still had four soldiers in it. Three-inch thick glass windows shattered and rockets bounced off the metal armor. "I looked around the bend and I could see Captain Tino Gonzales trying to keep his rear covered, ducking and dodging behind a tiny boulder as bullets pinged off the rock," said Petrovia, who finally decided to abandon the disabled vehicle. An Apache was ordered to destroy it to prevent the Taliban or al-Qaeda from gaining access to sensitive military information.
At 8 pm, well after sunset, the US convoy puttered back into its base at Kalagush. Commanders said they had been taken aback by both the weaponry and the number of insurgents that had attacked them in Doab.
"I was surprised, but in another sense I was disappointed," said naval commander Kerr. While the US humanitarian mission had met with local officials, the enemy had stealthily slipped into town. No one had tipped the Americans off, despite the growing concentration of insurgents. Several American officers said the day had made it clear that local officials were "in the pocket" of Taliban and al-Qaeda interests.
Despite the attack, US officers returned two days later by helicopter to inform local officials in a quick in-and-out meeting that they intended to push ahead with development projects for Doab. Fresh radio intercepts even indicated a new attack was in the making as the choppers departed.
"If we stop our assistance, it will be hard for people to recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government," insisted Petrovia, expressing an American idealism that was rarely on show in the first several years of this conflict. "If we can't offer more than the bad guys, what will the fence-sitters do? We have to keep going up there. We have to keep trying. It is a matter of saying, 'your freedom of choice is worth it to us'. I'm convinced that the purity of our actions and intentions will be enduring."
Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004). He is currently writing My Brother, My Enemy, a book about America and the battle of ideas in the Islamic world.