- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2008

JALREZ VALLEY, Afghanistan — The engines rumbled awake at midnight.

Creeping out from a lonely hilltop outpost built of dirt-filled blast barriers and razor wire, a U.S. convoy of more than 40 armored vehicles turned onto Afghanistan’s Highway 1 in blackout mode, switching off lights to foil Taliban lookouts.

Their destination: the Jalrez Valley, an ambush-ready stretch of fruit orchards and rocky slopes that cuts through Wardak province, 25 miles southwest of Kabul. With deadly frequency, the Taliban and affiliated militant groups are using the area to launch attacks on the capital and the national highway that is an economic lifeline to the south.

Given its location in between more populous urban centers, insurgents have made alarming gains in Wardak.

A shadow government collects taxes and runs roadside checkpoints, according to intelligence reports and residents, while fighters - many of them foreign - are largely free to train, stash arms and kidnap victims without interference.

In recent months, the increased level of Taliban activity, the weakness of Afghan security forces, and the prospect of mass voter intimidation ahead of next year’s national elections have forced the U.S.-led coalition to pay closer attention to the province and, in particular, Jalrez.

Lt. Larry Kay, of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry known as “Red Currahee,” first went to the valley with his company in late spring to set up a firebase at its mouth. In six months, he said, he never had a day off, beating back 27 attacks in June alone. Of the 70 men in his company, 30 were wounded and two died in combat.

“The [insurgents] are very aggressive and highly trained, always ready to exploit a weakness,” he said. “You will not have an advantage in Jalrez.”

Red Currahee, accustomed to punching above its weight, sought to project strength in numbers this time. More than 400 troops mobilized recently on a disruptive operation into the valley, making the five-hour journey from their home base, Forward Operating Base Sharana, in western Paktika province.

The long trip got off to a rough start. In Ghazni province, next to Paktika, an improvised explosive device blew up under an Afghan police Ford Ranger pickup at the front of the convoy, killing two and wounding four.

Farther ahead, the $270 million U.S.-funded highway that connects Kabul with Kandahar looked like a motor graveyard. The burned-out remains of delivery trucks lined the road, scarred every few miles by bomb blast sites.

The convoy stopped at a fortified outpost to wait for nightfall, after which the difficulties of traveling in the dark were manifest. One Humvee equipped with thermal vision was temporarily disabled when a jingle truck - so called because it is decorated with small bells and tassels - crashed into a wheel.

It was still dark when the convoy reached Jalrez.

Moving into defensive positions on each side of the valley, U.S. forces established a command perimeter in the village of Eshma-Kheyl to provide a clear vantage point in case of an insurgent attack. But nothing stirred.

“It’s almost too quiet,” said Capt. Spencer Wallace, scanning the rows of adobe compounds. “They knew we were coming.”

As other platoons moved house to house to check for enemy fighters, Capt. Wallace assembled a small group of tribal elders for a “mini-shura,” or meeting, in a carpeted living room. In the Pashtu language, he exchanged pleasantries with the bearded men, noting that it was the first time his troops have entered the valley without coming under fire.

Zabiullah Ameri leaned forward and assured the officer that his village supports the government and welcomes American troops as brothers.

“Why, then, are there so many attacks against us in this valley?” Capt. Wallace asked.

“We are like a soccer ball. Everyone who comes through wants to kick us,” said another man who was wearing a white head wrap. “We don’t know who is our enemy and who is our friend.”

The elders guaranteed the U.S. troops’ safety in Eshma-Kheyl, though they said they could not vouch for neighboring villages.

Before departing, Capt. Wallace pressed the elders to share with their community the good behavior of his troops in contrast to the heavy-handed “enemies of Afghanistan,” using Pashtu words.

“It’s the same language all the time: ‘There’s no enemy here,’” he later explained. “People are just waiting to see which way the wind blows because they don’t have weapons, but the enemy does.”

“We don’t hold that against them,” he added, “understanding it as a characteristic of where they feel trapped.”

Intelligence reports had indicated that several men living in the area were known to harbor Taliban militants. Members of Baker Company fanned out to red-flagged homes in search of details and weapons caches.

In one of the homes, owned by a local big man known simply as Wazir, they found a book of telephone numbers and black-and-white photos that appeared to be of Taliban figures. A plate of half-eaten rice suggested that someone left in a hurry.

Subsequent interviews with neighbors confirmed the man in question maintained close ties with militants operating in the valley, a useful piece of information that officers said will help them better understand grass-roots insurgent networks.

Afghan Army officials corroborated the suspicions of U.S. officers, telling them that plans of the Jalrez operation had somehow leaked all the way down to local bazaar merchants a day ahead of the battalion’s approach.

U.S. officers could only shake their heads in disgust.

Word soon arrived that a weapons cache of old grenades and rocket-propelled grenade fuses was uncovered in a shed at the edge of an apple orchard astride the paved valley road. Most of the contents were destroyed, though some items were given to cash-strapped Afghan Army fighters supporting the operation.

“Counterinsurgency is about achieving effects on the battlefield every day,” said Lt. Col. Tony Demartino, the operation commander. “If you’re always looking for gold rings, you’re gonna continue to miss buckets of brass rings.”

Moments later, the crack of artillery fire off a steep rock face overhead interrupted what had been a quiet day.

Alpha Company, assigned to protect the southern ridge in case enemy fighters began to gravitate toward the valley, was targeted with two errant rockets. They fired back. Rolling clouds and a flurry of snow seemed to signal a fight was coming, yet the nervous calm held.

The next morning brought a change of plans, and unexpected visitors.

At least 100 locals suddenly reared their heads. Their curiosity momentarily turned to panic when an F-15 fighter jet, dispatched to reassure them, did the opposite with a screaming flyby down the valley at 500 feet.

Red Currahee had planned to distribute food and winter clothes before returning to base at noon. When an Afghan general arrived, U.S. officers stood back and put him in charge of the handouts - cooking oil, flour, sweaters - to put an Afghan face on the relief.

The Afghan general then relayed what was happening to the new governor of Wardak province, Muhammad Halim Fedayi, who decided that he, too, would like to pay a visit, his first to the restive valley.

Deserted a day earlier, the village was now abuzz with anticipation. What was supposed to have been a fierce engagement had rapidly turned into a public relations coup.

The governor, visibly ill at ease being so deep inside an insurgent stronghold, said a prayer to the crowd and pledged to do more to assert the state’s authority in the months ahead.

Winging it, Col. Demartino then proposed to the governor that he make an impromptu visit to the district center a few miles down the valley road as a symbolic gesture of his office. The stop lasted less than 10 minutes.

“In this kind of war, you can only plan so much,” the colonel said.

Maj. Rob Fouche, smiling at the public about-face to the operation, touted it as evidence that “everybody appreciates a bit of security.”

But some locals worried that the coalition’s short-term presence might do more harm than good.

“We are scared because someone might tell the Taliban that we talked with the Americans and they will kill us,” said Delawar, 34, a truck driver from Eshma-Kheyl.

Muhammad Hosseini, a Jalrez native who recently returned from five years living in Manchester, England, after his visa extension was denied, lamented how dangerous the area has become.

U.S. forces “are here now but they will be gone soon,” he said. “The Taliban will be back.”

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