The soldiers staggered under the weight of backpacks, mortars, machine guns and rifles as they waited for CH-47 Chinook helicopters to ferry them to a mountaintop ridge.
“This is kind of ironic. Aren’t we supposed to be light infantry?” Pfc. Logan Riley, 19, of Wichita Falls, Texas, asked no one in particular.
“Anyone know where I can get some dust?” quipped another soldier as yet another gust blew in from the desert.
Before long, the commander of Comanche Company of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, had heard enough.
“I’m hearing a lot of chatter and not seeing you pay a lot of attention,” Capt. Jared Wilson said sternly. “I want you to understand the seriousness of what we are about to do.”
Commanche Company, 120 infantry soldiers, was gathered on the southern Afghanistan desert to launch an assault onto the ridge in northern Helmand province. It’s Taliban territory that hadn’t seen coalition forces in years.
“This could be easy, this could go smoothly. There might not be an enemy waiting for you,” Wilson said as the sun disappeared behind a distant peak.
“Or the first 10 people off the bird could be dead.”
The heavy equipment was to ensure survival.
“Does it suck carrying all that (gear)? Roger that,” he said. “They don’t show that in Hollywood. They don’t show you getting dehydrated,” he added, foreshadowing the limited water supply the company would have over the next several days in June.
Wilson reminded his troops that 10 U.S. soldiers had died the month before in a mountaintop helicopter crash, and that their mission was vital to the success of Operation Mountain Thrust, the largest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001. Then he sent the soldiers back into their four helicopter groups, silent and somber.
Just as the new mood was settling in, a mortar round slung over a soldier’s shoulder slid out of its case with a low screech, landing in the sand with a thud.
“Just my luck, it didn’t go off,” the soldier said to howls of laughter.
Critical mission: Extend Afghan government reach
From top generals to ground-level lieutenants, the U.S. military here touts the same plan for success: Extend the reach of the Afghan government.
Militant attacks are on the rise in Afghanistan, almost five years after the U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Taliban regime. The Taliban fighters are resurgent particularly in southern regions near the Pakistan border where little or no government exists. Roadside and suicide car bomb attacks are increasing.
More than 10,000 U.S., British, Canadian and Afghan troops launched major military offensives in support of the allied counterattack, Operation Mountain Thrust, on June 15. Military commanders say their primary mission is not to kill, but to establish a credible, helpful government that will gain the population’s respect and stamp out support for militants.
“This isn’t about how many Taliban you kill, this is about how many people are convinced that the government of Afghanistan is the future of Afghanistan,” Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, the senior U.S. commander in the country, said in an interview.
Freakley said in the past the military has battled for a certain area of Afghanistan and then left, allowing militants to go back in.
Now “what we’re trying to do is go into an area, fight in that area, build roads in that area, build confidence in the government in that area,” he said.
Villagers to U.S.: ‘Are you staying?’
On a desert strip outside Musa Qala, Lt. Col. Chris Toner oversees a new U.S. base constructed to support Operation Mountain Thrust.
“The first thing (Afghan villagers) want to know is, ‘Are you staying?”’ he says from the air-conditioned command tent that offers a break from the howling dust storms and intense heat.
Toner’s soldiers have received an icy reception in this southern province. Back in the eastern province of Paktika, where his unit previously operated, the people waved to his patrolling soldiers. Here the locals offer only blank stares.
“Could there be (Taliban) safe havens here? Yeah, we’re going to take that away from them. Then we’re going to work on the population,” Toner said.
Toner calls it “classic counterinsurgency” — to separate the enemy from the population and deny it sanctuary or local support.
To make friends and improve security and the economy, the military is installing solar-powered lights in small towns and paving key sections of roads.
Toner has given uniforms to the police officers in Musa Qala, which he says will help them gain the townspeople’s respect. Coalition medics give villagers medical care they’ve never before seen. Next up is installing government leaders who aren’t corrupt or tied into the drug trade.
Toner has a theory, which he stresses is his own and not the military’s, that the fight against the Taliban will take 10 to 15 years, meaning coalition forces have at least another five to go.
“You can kill a lot of fighters on the battlefield, but it doesn’t necessarily have the effect you want,” he said. “Development will force insurgents to run out of time.”
As midnight approaches, the soldiers in Wilson’s company fall silent, curling up on the desert floor to catch two or three hours of sleep. A short time later they are gliding over Helmand’s moonscape terrain.
Once the chopper puts down, the troops pour out onto a skinny mountain ridge, rifles at the ready, and spread out in formation. Because of the tiny landing zone, a second Chinook skims less than 10 feet above the soldiers already on the ground.
The first 10 off the chopper land fine, but know they’re in enemy territory.
Their first night on the ridge, spotters report a wave of suspect activity on the valley floor below — men darting from compound to compound and cars traveling without lights.
On night two, the suspicious activity turns into an attack, with a half dozen mortars fired at the U.S. position.
“Danger close!” yells Spc. Chris Carroll, a 20-year-old from Wichita Falls, Texas, whose job as forward observer is to pick targets for the mortar team and warn of incoming fire. A half mile from the impacts, the soldiers are far outside the blast radius but still conceivably within shrapnel range.
A machine gun pours red tracer bullets into a compound below, and the blasts from American mortar rounds echo throughout the valley.
An Air Force A-10 Warthog jet emits a low snorting or bleating sound as it unleashes its 30 mm Gatling gun on the suspected Taliban position. A B-1 bomber follows up with a 500-pound and then a 2,000-pound bomb, just 800 yards from the U.S. position, prompting Carroll to yell one more “Danger close!”
Wilson, the company commander, refuses his soldiers permission to attack until they identify a weapon among the militants, frustrating some of the troops on the front line. When they open up, it is careful and controlled.
For most here it is their first firefight since arriving in Afghanistan in February, and for many, including Sgt. 1st Class Gonzalo Lassally, 31, of Deltona, Fla., it is the first in their military careers.
“For most (soldiers) it was like, ‘Yes, we finally get to use our training,”’ Lassally said a couple days later. “For me, that was my first contact in eight years. I did have a buzz, it was good to know ... are we going to run around like chickens with our head cut off? But it was exactly like training, and no one got hurt, just like training.”
At daybreak, only a couple hours after the firefight, the soldiers collect their gear and hike down the steep and rocky ridge line to survey the damage.
A donkey limps around a mud compound, one of its hooves hurt, possibly from a bomb that missed its target by a good 50 yards and landed in a dirt field.
Another bomb hit its mark, destroying a mud hut from where militants had been firing. Two elderly civilians, too old to leave when the militants took over their home, died in the bombing, according to the couple’s son.
As the senior officer, Wilson asks to meet with elders from the village, and an hour later four rickety old men wearing gray and white turbans squat in the shade 100 yards from where the B-1 made a huge hole in the ground.
Questions without answers
“We are not here to fight you,” Wilson says. “We are here to help extend the reach of the government of Afghanistan.”
He fires questions at them through a military translator: Are Taliban fighters still in the area? Why did elders allow them safe passage into their village?
The elders profess ignorance, that they are on the soldiers’ side.
“We know the enemy is in the area, but we cannot stop them,” one elder says. “One thing we guarantee you is we are not helping them. We promise you if the Taliban pass through here we will tell you.”
Wilson later says it’s the same story he hears from all village elders, and that he doesn’t know if the four men have real power.
But the conversation recalls Toner’s assessment of the Afghan dilemma. The villagers probably do not want the Taliban, detest the militants who commandeer their mud brick homes to shoot from — but they are powerless to stop it.
If they pledge allegiance to the U.S. troops, what will happen once they leave?