Arghandab, Afghanistan – Setting out on one of their final patrols in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army and Afghan soldiers waded through waist-deep streams, scampered over crumbling 9-foot-tall mud walls and were closing in on a suspected bomb-making factory when their mission came to an unexpected halt.
Fifty yards short of their target, an Afghan soldier had been stung in the head by a bee. Now he wanted to abort the mission and head back to base.
American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division rolled their eyes as they told the pained Afghan fighter that scrapping their mission wasn’t an option.
“He’s like a little girl,” one of the U.S. soldiers said with disdain as a medic persuaded the glaring Afghan to press on.
After months of deadly and often demoralizing fighting alongside mediocre Afghan forces in one of the Taliban’s most intractable strongholds outside Kandahar city, the Americans in this Army company are asking themselves if it had been worth it.
“I’m ready to get out of here,” said Sgt. Joshua Middlebrook, 25, of Sanford, N.C., as the patrol made its way back to base after coming up dry in the search. “I’m tired of picking up body parts.”
American forces have been dying in record numbers this summer. The death toll in June was the highest in nearly nine years of war — until July, when U.S. deaths in Afghanistan reached a new monthly record of 66.
Many of the killings occurred here in Kandahar province, where President Barack Obama is gambling that an unfolding military campaign can dislodge Taliban fighters from their spiritual homeland and allow the U.S.-led military coalition to gain the upper hand.
Amid growing U.S. concerns about the war in Afghanistan, no one is feeling the pressure to demonstrate progress more than the Americans working on the rustic, isolated bases in southern Afghanistan.
In the sweltering Arghandab valley, U.S. soldiers have fumed in silence as Afghan fighters got high on drugs before setting off on military operations. They’ve questioned Afghan police commanders suspected of cutting private protection deals with Taliban insurgents. And U.S. soldiers said they cracked down on Afghan police officers who’d kept a boy captive on a U.S. base and abused him sexually.
Though American military strategists said they are making slow headway, some U.S. soldiers aren’t confident it will be good enough to assuage skeptical Americans back home and to convince wary Afghans to back the anemic Kabul government led by President Hamid Karzai.
“Some days I feel like we’ve made a difference,” Middlebrook said. “Other days, not so much. Maybe it won’t last and the Taliban will move back in. I don’t know.”
Over the past year, Charlie Company — of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team with the 82nd Airborne Division — has been hit especially hard.
Charlie Company squad leaders said that four of their soldiers were killed and 15 more seriously wounded as they battled Taliban fighters and grappled with an endless supply of well-hidden roadside bombs, said soldiers with the 82nd Airborne, based in Fort Bragg, N.C.
The company’s deaths accounted for more than a fifth of the 27 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division killed this year in Afghanistan, according to the iCasualties website.
Charlie Company spent much of this year in a part of Arghandab that some soldiers call the “Westside ghetto,” a chain of desolate villages and dense orchards running along the west side of the river that’s provided often impenetrable shelter for fighters over the centuries.
Like the Soviets before them, American forces have found the Arghandab River valley to be an especially punishing battlefield. Progress has been halting.
Many village elders from Taliban-controlled areas long ago sought refuge in nearby Kandahar city, and with Taliban insurgents routinely killing Afghans who work with U.S. forces, some village leaders are wary of American assurances that they’ll be safe if they come back.
That’s made it difficult for counterinsurgency strategists to make much headway in creating a network of trustworthy local leaders or hiring local Afghans to work on signature development projects.
“The local population knows who they’re afraid of — and it ain’t us,” said Staff Sgt. Chris Gerhart, an outspoken 22-year-old Charlie Company squad leader from Jacksonville, Fla.
With Americans increasingly questioning the war and U.S. generals pressing for swift results, military commanders in Afghanistan are anxious to demonstrate success.
When U.S. forces made significant headway in pushing Taliban fighters out of the southern stretches of the Arghandab valley, the insurgents retreated north.
“We had a greater flow of insurgents than I originally anticipated,” said Lt. Col. Guy Jones, the commander of the 82nd Airborne forces in Arghandab.
The intensified fighting soured some of the soldiers on the fundamental tenets of a U.S. counterinsurgency strategy — also known as COIN — that relies as much on wooing the population with political and economic progress as it does on routing enemy forces.
“I’m not saying you can’t win a COIN fight, but it’s not going to work in Afghanistan, and it’s not going to work during the fighting season,” said one Charlie Company soldier who asked not to be identified to avoid being disciplined for his candor. “It’s hard to go to hugs and kisses when you still close your eyes at night and see your friends’ body parts.”
The frustrations within Charlie Company were compounded this summer by a challenging transfer of control to 101st Airborne Division artillery forces who had little of the infantry experience needed for the grueling fighting in Arghandab.
In their first few weeks in Arghandab, the 101st Airborne took extensive casualties. At least four soldiers were killed and two dozen more were seriously injured, according to soldiers in Arghandab.
“They weren’t prepared physically, mentally and tactically,” Gerhart said.
Some Charlie Company soldiers blamed the 101st Airborne Division’s inexperience for the death of Sgt. Edwardo Loredo of Houston, who was killed by a roadside bomb one day before his 35th birthday in late June.
The problems came to a head in mid-July as the 82nd Airborne was preparing to cede control to the 101st and the joint forces got pinned down in a battle that some Charlie Company soldiers called the Arghandab Alamo.
The forces set out to fight the Taliban at one of the most contested canals in an area dubbed the “devil’s playground.”
The Taliban met the American forces with a well-planned strike that quickly ravaged the American forces, said soldiers who took part in the fight.
“If it wasn’t for the 82nd guys, we’d be dead by now,” said Private George Miller, a 19-year-old Redlands, Calif., native who’s now in Arghandab with the 101st Airborne.
The influx of new forces dispatched by Obama has given the 101st Airborne, based in Fort Campbell, Ky., more power to hold onto areas that the 82nd Airborne never could fully control.
Lt. Col. David Flynn, the head of the 101st Airborne in Arghandab, took it as a kind of personal mission to seize the “devil’s playground” and set up a new military base to throw the Taliban off-balance.
“I told the guys I would not let Sgt. Loredo die in vain,” Flynn said.
At significant cost, the new soldiers fought to establish Combat Outpost Stout, named after Sgt. Kyle Stout, of Texarkana, Texas, who was one of the first soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to be killed in Arghandab this summer.
“They don’t need to be the best infantry, they just need to be better than the Taliban,” Flynn said of his soldiers. “And they are.”
In the past five months, 38 soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division have been killed in Afghanistan, according to iCasualties. Five of them were killed in Kandahar province last month as the soldiers struggled to get their bearings.
Although the Afghan forces sent to fight alongside American soldiers in Arghandab are supposed to be among the best the country has to offer, U.S. officers gave them mixed reviews.
Drug use among Afghan fighters remains pervasive.
One Afghan commander turned up on a recent military operation in Arghandab with bloodshot eyes, suggesting that he was high.
U.S. soldiers at one Arghandab base refer to a particular guard tower as “the Hash Tower” because that’s where they say the Afghan soldiers go to get high.
“I trust them only as far as I can throw them,” Specialist Clayton Taylor, a 25-year-old Charlie Company soldier from Lake Wales, Fla., said while on patrol with the Afghan Army. “They’re lazy. They don’t care. And half of them are crooked.”
The Afghan police are an even bigger problem.
Charlie Company soldiers said they long suspected that the Afghan police commander in their area had cut a deal with the Taliban to ensure that he wouldn’t be attacked.
“You could tell he was playing both sides,” said Private Larry Nichols, a 21-year-old from St. Mary’s, Md. “He was doing what he did to stay alive.”
On a recent evening, Gerhart and his squad sat outside their tent as they counted down the days to their departure and released months of pent-up frustrations while talking to a reporter.
“Has the war been worth it?” Gerhart asked while pacing back and forth in the dimming light. “I don’t know, because it’s not over.”