Camp Wilderness, Paktia Province, Afghanistan – With the first high-pitched cracks of AK-47 fire, the Afghan National Army soldiers jumped out of their unarmored Ford Ranger pick-up truck and disappeared behind a small hill.
The gunner on the American armored truck behind them, Sgt. E. Daniel Witherspoon of 1st platoon, Bravo Troop, 1-33 Cavalry Regiment, yelled for his driver to stop.
“Somebody’s shootin’ at us!” He shouted into the truck’s cabin. He swiveled his head along with the turret on his Mark 19 grenade launcher to detect the source. Then he pulled the trigger. The 40 millimeter grenades left the barrel with a “thunk” and a few seconds later exploded in a cloud of dirt on the steep mountainside to the truck’s right.
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The Americans yelled for the Afghans to get back in their trucks, but they didn’t budge. Unable to move forward, the convoy of four U.S. armored vehicles and two ANA trucks was now stuck in the kill zone, with an estimated 12 to 15 Taliban shooting at them from a high ridgeline across a steep valley to their right.
An explosion echoed through the valley; a rocket propelled grenade had slammed into the side of the mountain below the troops.
It wasn’t the first time the Taliban attacked Bravo troop since the unit arrived to this rugged, remote area of Paktia Province, near the Afghan border with Pakistan, in January.
The engagement here is an example of just how hard it will be to achieve the goals of securing the Afghan population and bringing government and development to the largely rural country.
Paktia Province is not as violent as Afghanistan’s southern provinces, where a planned operation in Kandahar is underway this summer and fall to take back areas largely controlled by the Taliban. But that might simply be because there are no NATO troops contesting large swaths of the province’s sparsely populated mountains. The 1-33’s battalion commander estimates that he doesn’t have the manpower to reach 15 percent of the territory in his area of operations. His men rarely visit another 15 percent of the area.
As a result, Taliban and Haqqani Network fighters have set up safe havens and even training camps in the remote valleys from which they can launch attacks on the U.S. and Afghan soldiers, intimidate villagers and halt badly needed development projects.
Construction has stopped on the $100 million USAID project to pave and improve the most strategic route in the area, the Khost-Ghardez Highway. Militants attacked the construction company’s guards one night this spring and set fire to the equipment. The contractor has refused to continue work until security improves.
The construction firm’s compound is located right next to Bravo troop’s headquarters, called Camp Wilderness. Plywood buildings sprayed with insulation make the base look like an adobe village. Bravo troop has two platoons stationed at Wilderness, which is tucked into a ravine between the high mountain peaks.
As the snow has melted on those mountains, the pace of attacks has increased in Bravo Troop’s area.
On May 8, one of Bravo troop’s platoons was ambushed. Around the same time, the local Afghan army commander hit an IED. A week later, Camp Wilderness was hit with twelve 107-millimeter rockets.
A few days after the attack, Lt. Joe Witcher led 19 soldiers from Bravo Company’s 1st platoon, and a squad of Afghan army soldiers, into the area to look for the rocket launching site in Gerdai Serai district, near a village called Haqi Kalay. They found nothing. But within five minutes of leaving the village, bullets began pinging off the armored vehicles.
Eight minutes into the ambush, the Afghan army soldiers still wouldn’t return to their trucks. The lieutenant wanted the convoy to move forward so they could maneuver on the ambushers. The American troopers called in mortars, artillery and air support. The Afghans eventually got back into their trucks, and the Americans tried to maneuver on the shooters. But by the time they moved, the attackers vanished.
Witcher wasn’t surprised the ambush took place near Haki Kalay. The area is strongly suspected of being a staging ground for the Taliban and its allies. He says either because of intimidation or support, the people in the village are helping the militants.
Three days after the attack, Witcher and Bravo troops commander, Capt. Jarrad Glasenapp, had the opportunity to confront village elders from the area. Every week, the officers meet with the local “shura,” which is basically the Afghan equivalent of a county board of commissioners. Witcher had low expectations for the meeting, in part because the Taliban have scared many people in this area into submission.
“We have reports that 10 to 15 [Taliban] have been coming to the local villages,” Witcher said before the meeting. “At the local shura three weeks ago, no elders showed up, and … we heard the Taliban had said if you attend local government meetings then we will kill you.”
The Taliban followed through on those threats in a neighboring district in late May. They killed six elders who refused to cooperate.
Due to its remote location and small population, the people of Haqi Kalay, like many small hamlets in these mountains, may not see the results of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy of securing the population for some time, if ever. The strategy focuses on winning over small communities as the key to winning over the Afghan population.
One of the senior officers with the local Afghan Army battalion says the Taliban has control over 30 percent of the population in his area of operations. The police in the area have no vehicles, so they can’t help. The Americans haven’t been to the town for a month. The Afghan army can’t go without the Americans.
Glasenapp says the elders need to stand up to the Taliban and side with the Afghan government, even though there’s basically no way to protect them, or guarantee their safety, if they make a stand.
“They need to do it themselves, and push Taliban out of those villages,” he said.
“We, and the [Afghan army] and [Afghan police] can’t be everywhere,” he said. “We can’t do it. So yes, it’s a lot to ask, but if they want future to look bright in my eyes, then they need to stand up to these guys. It’s asking a lot, but I can’t have guys out here every day.”
“A lot of it falls on them to be strong enough, if willing, to see that the government is the right way to go,” he added.
Many more troops, whether they be Afghan or American, are still needed to provide security before that happens.
Lutsky says many locals are hedging their bets. He says it’s not unusual for some Afghan families’ to have members who are part of the government, and others who work with the Taliban.
Bravo troop was hedging its bets as well the week after the ambush. In his headquarters, Glasenapp talked about working with local leaders and bringing Afghan government presence to the district. A hundred feet away, his soldiers practiced ambush drills in the base’s helicopter landing zone. It’s preparation they will almost certainly need in the months ahead.