- The Washington Times - Monday, April 5, 2010

ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan | It is the U.S. Army’s most urgent alert and it is now ringing across the Arghandab Valley, from the 82nd Airborne’s Battalion Command to the smallest combat outpost: Soldier missing in action.

The alert sounds after a patrol was ambushed by Taliban soldiers operating in this lush and strategically crucial valley on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city and the crucible of Taliban influence. In the heat of the moment, it is unclear whether the soldier had been killed or disappeared.

“The last thing we want is having a soldier kidnapped to an enemy that doesn’t take prisoners and beheads its enemies on TV,” says Army Maj. William Black, who monitors the unfolding drama from a darkened situation room hung with Afghan, Canadian and U.S. flags and video feeds coming in live from drones hanging over the battle space.

A few miles from the incident, Lt. Jordan Ritenour is having a hard time persuading his Afghan army colleagues to join him on the search mission. As part of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, Lt. Ritenour and his fellow soldiers live with the same Afghan soldiers they mentor in bases close to Taliban-supporting villages.

“We wanted you to come because an American died today,” he tells them, his voice choking with frustration and emotion.

Five Afghan soldiers are corralled and the company heads out, moving across the lanes of the mud-walled village of Kuhak before plunging into fields. The Taliban has prepared for its annual spring offensive by sowing bombs and booby traps around the valley’s country lanes. Invisible explosives stud walls, ditches and even trees. The soldiers go off-road, betting that the Taliban would not alienate local farmers by booby-trapping their fields. They scramble over orchard walls and wade through irrigation canals.

“We don’t do any route twice,” says Army Sgt. Jeremiah Mason. “If they catch me on an IED, they’ll have really done their homework.”

“It’s better to have wet legs than no legs,” Sgt. John Cook says.

The soldiers reach the shore of the Arghandab River and assume covering positions along one of its banks, across from a complex of mud-walled compounds. A half-dozen helicopters buzz overhead, their pilots straining to locate the missing man.

“This is the biggest priority in [Regional Command]-South and probably the whole of Afghanistan, too,” Sgt. Mason says as he crouches crotch-high in water.

The radio transmits the news that pieces of an M-4 rifle and a helmet have been found. It is becoming clear that the infantryman probably did not survive the improvised explosive device (IED) ambush. Amid trails of smoke, a Black Hawk helicopter lands to retrieve parts of the wreckage.

Then, a shout goes out. Amid the deployed soldiers and maneuvering helicopters, a man has emerged from the shrub on the far shore and is moving toward the river. Swathed in a white robe and turban, he looks like a figure from the Bible.

“Hey, do you want to search this clown?” one of the soldiers asks.

Two Afghan and two American soldiers wade through the river’s fast currents, interdict the aging man and search him. Once it is ascertained he is unarmed, he is allowed to go. In the absence of a bridge, he hitches up his robes and plunges into the water, a timeless figure in a virgin valley visited by 21st-century war.

“What the Taliban usually do is shoot at you or blow something up, then throw the weapon under a hay bale and go back to being farmers,” says Sgt. Joshua Victorin, a soldier on his fifth deployment.

News arrives that an informer is claiming that the missing soldier is alive and being held by the Taliban in Kuhak, the same village where the soldiers started. With the soldier now confirmed dead, the tip-off appears suspicious.

“If they know that one of our guys is missing, that means that they want us to walk through Kuhak,” said Sgt. Victorin. “It could be an ambush, it could be an IED.” Reinforcements are called, in the form of Green Berets and surrogate local militias.

Gunfire reverberates around the valley, chattering above the evening prayer and what sounds like children screaming. The helicopters drop chaff and return to base. Darkness falls. As the clatter of rotors fades away, the river’s warbling reasserts itself.

Lt. Ritenour’s company prepares to return to base.

“Exfil[tration] is the most dangerous part of the mission,” he says. “We’ve been here for eight hours; therefore, it’s likely that the Taliban have been implanting IEDs around us.”

The company moves silently through waist-high fields to a soundtrack of dogs barking hoarsely from within compounds. A ghostly moon rises from behind a mountain range, shedding silvery light on faces illuminated only by the green pinprick of night-vision goggles. Light pollution from Kandahar bleeds sickly into the black night from a few miles away.

“A death for us is sacred,” says Sgt. Mason. “No effort will be spared to return that body to its family.”

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