- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

CHESHAN GHAR, Afghanistan

It’s disconcerting to stand in a quiet valley of the Hindu Kush mountains and hear artillery shells break the silence and pound nearby ridges, targeting gunmen who may be lying in wait to ambush U.S. forces.

A shell’s impact explodes in flames and smoke, of course, but it’s only seconds later that one hears the sound of detonation: loud and intense for just a brief moment, then rapidly echoing away into silence.

It’s the same with the deafening volleys of 50-caliber machine-gun fire at caves and other likely hiding spots: sight of impact, sound delayed, anxious soldiers attempting to keep potential attackers at bay in a place that’s as beautiful as it is deadly.

“I don’t want to stay here too long,” said Army Capt. Paco Bryant. “The longer we stay, the more time we give [the Taliban] to gather and attack. The faster we get this job done the better.”

Capt. Bryant is commander of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 10th Mountain Division in northeastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

The company was patrolling not far from where eight U.S. soldiers died last weekend during a ferocious 13-hour firefight with insurgents in Nuristan province near the Afghan-Pakistan border.

It is also near Wanat, the site of a July 2008 battle in which a small outpost was nearly overrun by Taliban and nine U.S. troops were killed.

The commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, reportedly plans to close such isolated outposts in the rugged and scarcely inhabited hinterland near the Pakistani border and consolidate forces in more populated areas as part of a revised “hearts-and-minds” counterinsurgency program.

“In a country as large and complex as Afghanistan, [the International Security Assistance Force] can’t be everywhere,” Gen. McChrystal wrote in an Aug. 30 assessment to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “ISAF must focus its full range of civilian and military resources where they will have the greatest effect on the people.”

In the meantime, units like Capt. Bryant’s continue their missions.

His unit is based at Combat Outpost (COP) Monti in the province’s Asmar district, about six miles from the district capital of Asadabad. He made the comment about not staying too long during a mission to clear away the burned wreckage of a half-dozen trucks that were blocking Route Stetson, the only road from the COP to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bostick and the Nishigam district about 18 miles north.

The Afghan trucks, escorted by a U.S. vehicle, had been destroyed the day before in an ambush. An estimated two dozen gunmen took positions on opposite ridges at a point where the dirt road - which is no more than 12 feet at the widest point - narrowed at a horseshoe-shaped bend and opened fire with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” Capt. Bryant said of attacks along the road. “The drivers panic, trucks overturn or crash into each other and create a huge bottleneck. Nothing can pass until the wreckage is cleared away, which means they have another opportunity to shoot at coalition forces and create an even larger bottleneck.

“These kinds of attacks are a win-win for them. If they can bottle up these trucks, they get a chance to shoot at coalition forces, they get a chance to destroy coalition force vehicles, and they make the local population [near the ambush sites] happy because they have the chance to loot these vehicles for all their contents as well as the equipment and parts of the vehicles - tires, engines, everything - that they can sell later,” he said.

Capt. Bryant and his men were part of the rescue force in that attack and braved enemy gunfire to carry wounded Afghan drivers to safety. The battle, he said, lasted three hours. Three Afghan civilians were killed and five injured. One U.S. soldier was wounded. Insurgent casualties were undetermined.

Capt. Bryant said that on average, a quarter of the eight convoys monthly in his sector are ambushed, while many others receive harassing small-arms fire.

Yet Afghan merchants continued to line up outside the base in their jingle trucks - a nickname given because of the noisemakers with which the trucks are fitted - for the journey. What started out as small number of vehicles to supply other U.S. outposts has become a large goods train for Afghans as well.

Kunar province, like neighboring Nuristan, borders Pakistan and is a main infiltration route for Taliban insurgents heading to and from Afghanistan’s central regions. Together they have been called the “cradle of jihad,” given the successes against Soviet occupation forces they enabled in the 1980s.

In Charlie Company’s sector - about 400 square miles of mountains and valleys cleaved by the Kunar River - it’s believed there are about 150 gunmen from the Taliban and associated groups such as Hezb-i Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said an intelligence officer who requested anonymity. In addition, it’s believed about 75 hired gunmen are spread across the sector’s three districts.

Except for ambushes, the insurgents - both transiting and resident - stay farther to the north and east in areas that U.S. forces can’t reach because of the ruggedness of the terrain and their inaccessibility to vehicles.

As much as half of Charlie Company’s sector can’t be reached by military vehicles.

“I know where they are but can’t get to them,” Capt. Bryant said. “And what makes it worse is that I know they know that.”

The situation in many other areas of the province is similar but may change soon if Gen. McChrystal closes isolated outposts.

But until that happens, men like those in Charlie Company will continue their curtailed-by-necessity operations in their 400-square-mile area, which has about 100,000 people.

When not escorting vehicle convoys, men of Charlie Company, like their Delta Company counterparts at the Command Outpost Fortress in the Narang district, meet with elders from accessible villages, assess project needs and desires and establish personal relationships with those elders. The goal is to wean the villagers away from Taliban influence and foster ties with local government and Afghan forces, with whom U.S. troops conduct operations.

“Here in Narang [district, population 28,000], I’d say about 90 percent of the people live in the valleys farming, and 10 percent along the border with Pakistan. Only about 1 percent are fighters. The rest are just ambivalent,” said 2nd Lt. Graham Markiewicz at COP Fortress with Delta Company, 1-32.

“But I think the projects and fostering of relationships help. We’ve seen a real decline in attacks, including [improvised explosive devices] since I got here in May. What we mainly see now in my sector is some harassing fire.”

As Capt. Bryant and his men stood watch in the valley by Cheshan Ghar [mountain], a U.S. Army bulldozer pushed the burned-out jungle trucks off Route Stetson into the Kunar River. No Taliban attacked as artillery from COP Monti pounded the nearby ridges.

The next convoy would pass through soon - a new opportunity for Taliban violence and for villagers near the known ambush sites to loot.

“We can’t reward the nonsense and shenanigans going on,” Capt. Bryant said. “If I’m going through your village and get ambushed, guess what? Your schools won’t be built, the wells won’t be dug.

“Now [villagers] close to here are inconvenienced, their women and children can’t get to the hospital, they have to walk to work because everything is blocked. I’d like to leave the road blocked so they can feel the pain, but unfortunately, I can’t.”


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