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The Path to Yaghestan

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter doorgunner on the approach to FOB Airborne in Wardak Province.

ISSUE:  Spring 2010
In the remote mountain villages of Afghanistan, fighting factionalism may be like fighting gravity.


“The people of Afghanistan represent many things in this conflict—an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage—but above all, they are the objective.”
— General Stanley McChrystal, International Security Assistance Force Commander


Captain Gholam Mojatba draws a cheap Korean cigarette from a plastic pouch on his chest. It’s midmorning, and the sun has finally climbed high enough to burn off the alpine chill. The captain is already halfway through his pack. He strikes an MRE match and takes a long, pensive drag. He hacks and spits like an old engine on a cold morning. Two packs a day and a bullet wound to the lung will do that. When the convulsions subside, Mojatba brings the filter to his lips again. No coughing now. He exhales, casting an exhausted, hangdog gaze over the valley a thousand feet below. 

Captain Mojatba has been fighting for half his life. At forty, the barrel-chested, stubble-faced northerner from Panshir is almost old enough, by Afghan standards, to be a grandfather to his six-year-old daughter, who is hidden safely away with his wife in Kabul. In his youth, Mojatba eschewed married life to follow the mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary “Lion of the Panshir,” in the fight against the Soviets. When the Taliban pushed their way into the northern provinces after the fall of Kabul in 1996, Mojatba again took up with Massoud, by then commander of the Northern Alliance, to resist the advance. That operation cost him a piece of his lung, but he survived. Massoud didn’t—a suicide bomber posing as an Al Jazeera cameraman assassinated him in September 2001, two days before the al Qaeda attacks on the United States. When the Taliban finally fell, under withering US bombing in late 2001, Mojatba found his way into the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA). Now he is commander of First Company Second Kandak, based twenty kilometers southwest of Kabul in Maydan Shahr, the capital of Wardak Province. He’s fighting the Taliban once again.

Forty year-old Captain Gholam Mojatba, a Tajik from the northern province of Panshir, on patrol in the Depak Valley. Captain Mojatba joined the mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation as a teenager. He has been fighting ever since.

Captain Mojatba and his men are the “Afghan face” of efforts to stabilize the foundering Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, to secure the Afghan population, and to neutralize the Taliban threat to Kabul once and for all.

At least that’s how the story is supposed to go.

Mojatba rolls his eyes, bored. “We’re not fighting the Taliban in Wardak,” he says. Cross-legged, propped against the rusted hulk of a jingle truck, he spoons globs of tagine d’agneau from a French ration de combat individuelle onto pieces of local flatbread, called naan. “We’re fighting criminals who use the name Taliban when they take money to go out and kill their own people.” His version supports everything I’ve heard from US troops and Afghans alike—except the part about killing “their own people.” In Wardak, coalition casualties have vastly outstripped Afghan casualties.

I ask Mojatba how many men he’s lost in five years as a company commander. “Nine,” he says. The answer stuns me. Blackhawk Company of the 2-87 Infantry Battalion—one of the US Army units I’ve recently spent time with in Wardak—has lost nine men in the last five months alone.

The answer conjures up standard-issue US military paranoia—that the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP) have cut deals with local Taliban, promising to live and let live. Or worse, that the ANA and ANP are in league with the Taliban, that they are prime suppliers of operational intelligence about coalition forces.

In October, in a valley close to where we’re halted now, a police trainee turned his Kalashnikov on his US counterparts after a joint patrol, killing two. US troops are still wary after the betrayal, and experience suggests they have ample reason to distrust the Afghans. Every US infantryman can rattle off a half dozen stories about Afghan troops hanging back on patrol, refusing to accompany the Americans into a particular valley or down a certain stretch of road. In every story, the Americans advance, unaccompanied, headlong into a waiting ambush or into the fiery embrace of yet another roadside bomb.

But the reason for low ANA casualties, Captain Mojatba insists, is less insidious.

Financiers of IED attacks in Wardak aren’t interested in killing Afghans, he explains. Dead Afghans make for poor insurgent propaganda. Dead Americans, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. He spreads his hands on his lap, palms up. “If I gave you a choice,” he says, “if I told you I have $100 in my left hand and $10,000 in my right, and I told you that you could have either one, which would you choose?”

Mojatba believes the solution is economic, not military. “You’ve done nothing to address unemployment,” he sighs. Flanked by dozens of baby-faced Afghan soldiers and a handful of US Marines, all armed to the teeth, an F-15 whooshing through clouds overhead, it’s hard to counter Mojatba’s argument. Afghan soldiers can suppress insurgent activity as long as they have ammunition and foreign logistical support—but without a heavily resourced, deeply researched plan for economic rehabilitation and civil-society development, Wardak will remain fertile ground for recruiting insurgents.

“If the Americans leave,” Captain Mojatba worries, “families will fight each other, the government will fail, and everyone will make their own crew. The army will be defeated everywhere in the country.”

The disintegration Captain Mojatba describes has a name. In the Middle Ages, Persian conquerors called the eastern wilds beyond the pale of the shah’s authority yaghestan. The term literally means “land of the rebellious,” and has been used at various points in history to describe the habit of Afghan alliances to splinter into a million tribal shards when foreign overlords and overly zealous Afghan leaders push the limits of centralized control.

For Afghans, implosion is a survival mechanism. Coalition soldiers and civilian advisers may believe they are building a centralized Afghan state, but what they are really doing is fighting to prevent Karzai’s confederation of disparate provincial governors and warlords from backsliding along the well-worn path to yaghestan.

In his September 2009 commander’s assessment, General Stanley McChrystal repeatedly called for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to take a “fundamentally new approach” to wresting influence from the major insurgent networks currently operating in Afghanistan. As part of an effort to rescue the Afghan war from years of neglect in the shadow of Iraq, US military planners had already made an important conceptual shift: combat troops would transition from counterterrorism operations to counterinsurgency. The difference transcends semantics. Counterterrorism is “enemy-centric,” focused on capturing or killing the enemy wherever he is; counterinsurgency is “population-centric,” concerned with protecting vulnerable communities from intimidation and coercion by insurgent networks. “Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces,” McChrystal explained. “Our objective must be the population.”

The simple idea was to duplicate the success of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq—when an additional twenty thousand US soldiers flooded Baghdad’s war-ravaged neighborhoods. Less than a year later, the rate of successful IED attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces had dropped by 50 percent—from over fifteen hundred in January 2007 to about seven hundred in November of the same year. By appearances, the surge had turned the tide of the war in Iraq.

But the Iraq surge did not work its magic in a vacuum. First, it coincided with “The Awakening,” a massive popular uprising of Sunni Iraqi tribes—many of whom had previously fielded militias and part-time insurgents—against the networks of foreign fighters who at one time had used their neighborhoods as bases of operation. Second, the Iraqi insurgency, however lethally multifarious in 2007, was largely an urban phenomenon. Surge troops arrived in Baghdad like a made-to-order police force and set about putting cops on every corner. Thus, the surge purchased enough stability for the US military to shift focus from combat operations to high-tempo training of the Iraqi police and security forces. These and a multitude of other internal factors—like Iraq’s long history of strong central government and cosmopolitanism—contributed heavily to the surge’s effectiveness.

Suffice to say, Iraq and Afghanistan are cut from different cloth. The Awakening depended on the rigidly hierarchical structure of large Iraqi tribes and the ability of the tribal leaders, or sheikhs, to wield authority over their tribesmen. In Afghanistan individual families are staunchly independent and tribes are organized around egalitarian codes, making it impossible for tribal elders to command a ceasefire or to issue a broad call to arms against nonlocal insurgents.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is rural, entrenched in an enormous swath of inhospitable mountain and desert terrain in the Pashtun-dominated areas to the south and east of Kabul, girded by the notoriously porous Pakistani border. Twenty thousand extra troops may have been a conspicuous surge on the streets of Baghdad and Mosul, but even a hundred thousand extra troops would hardly register on the outsize Afghan landscape.

Glaring contextual differences aside, the apparent success of the Iraq surge drove the Obama administration’s decision to expand troop numbers in Afghanistan to sixty-eight thousand by the end of 2009, compared with a total presence of approximately twenty-seven thousand in January 2008. And troop numbers are scheduled to rise still higher. Addressing a crowd of cadets at the US Military Academy in December, Obama announced that he would accommodate General McChrystal’s request for an additional thirty thousand troops. With new troops touching down at Kandahar and Bagram air bases and shuttling out to their forward positions, General McChrystal will soon command a US force of nearly a hundred thousand—fully twenty times larger than the force on the ground in January 2002, the start of the first full year of war.

The 2-87 Infantry Battalion, part of the Third Brigade Tenth Mountain Division hails from the windswept, frostbitten plains of Fort Drum, New York, an ideal sort of hell in which to train soldiers bound for Afghanistan. The battalion—known as Task Force Spartan— has deployed to Afghanistan twice before, both times to positions along the Pakistani border. Experience in the lung-popping, high-altitude patrols unique to the Afghan mission runs deep in the ranks. But the 2-87 was not supposed to deploy here this time around—all of their training had them prepared for a tour in Iraq. At the eleventh hour, they were rerouted to Wardak Province as part of the Obama administration’s preliminary troop buildup in January 2009. They would be doing counterinsurgency—a sexy name for a decidedly unsexy job.

The 2-87 arrived in Wardak with the rest of the Third Brigade, which includes another infantry battalion, a field-artillery battalion, and a bevy of support elements. The brigade of more than a thousand soldiers took over operations from a lone infantry company. Their predecessors, suffering severe security and logistical limitations, had rarely ventured farther than a half day’s drive from their base on the outskirts of Maydan Shahr. They inherited scant intelligence and virtually no human network in their new area of operations—a region about twice the size of Delaware, split by the contested Kabul-Kandahar highway and “canalized” by hundreds of valleys accessible only by rudimentary roads and helicopters. The 2-87 would have to start from scratch.

When the battalion’s infantry companies began looking for sites on which to build firebases and observation posts in Wardak’s “Indian country,” away from the relative safety of the highway, the villagers they encountered hadn’t seen foreigners since the end of the Soviet occupation, if ever. Initial contacts were friendly enough, but then again, there weren’t many in those first few months. Wardak was still buried in snow, and villagers were tucked away in their warm, mud-brick compounds, called qalats, waiting for the spring thaw.

All the while, IED cells were waiting too—waiting to see where the 2-87 would set up shop, waiting for Wardak’s fruit trees to sprout enough leaves to conceal command wires and triggermen.

“It was all peace, love, and happiness when we first got here,” says Captain Jim McCune, the stocky former Marine in command of Blackhawk 2-87, “until about March, when the IEDs started.”

Twenty-three-year-old Specialist David Burdette, from Houston, Texas, was wounded in an IED attack in the Tangi Valley during a foot patrol. Specialist Burdette is one semester short of a degree in aero-space engineering from Penn State.

For American troops in Wardak, history is neatly divided into two epochs: before IEDs and after. At the end of May, Captain McCune was six months into the tour with only one injured soldier on his conscience. Then, on June 1, an IED incinerated one of Blackhawk’s patrol vehicles. He points to a photo of the wreckage on his laptop. “The axles were pretty much the only pieces left,” he mutters, reunited for a moment with his shock. Things got worse—a secondary IED took out the rescue force. Before the afternoon was over, four soldiers were dead. The summer was just beginning.

In the months since, Blackhawk 2-87 has earned the morbid distinction of having the highest casualty count in the battalion: nine dead and nearly thirty wounded badly enough to earn one-way tickets back to the US—all from IEDs.

Roadside bombs caused almost all of 2-87’s nineteen deaths and one-hundred-plus injuries during 2009. The simple, homemade bombs that have killed thousands of US forces and civilians in Iraq are a relatively new feature of the fight in Afghanistan. Most combat action since 2001 has taken place along the Pakistani border, in the barren desert sweeps of Helmand and Kandahar Provinces to the south, and in the timber-studded Korengal Valley, where the steeples and crags of the Hindu Kush begin their slow descent. The fighting in those regions has been heavily “kinetic,” focused on direct action against battalions of core Taliban fighters who rest and regroup in Pakistan during the winter.

“There’s a lot of lead flying around on the border,” the soldiers say. But in Wardak, as one infantryman tells me, “you just get blown up.”

Wardak is the laboratory for a new breed of gargantuan IEDs never before seen in Afghanistan. Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams in the province have recovered ammonium-nitrate fertilizer bombs as big as three hundred pounds—large enough to blast a Humvee into orbit. And, of course, there were the ones they found the hard way.

IED casualties were so high in Wardak by midsummer that Colonel David Haight, commander of the Third Brigade Tenth Mountain Division, to which 2-87 belongs, forbade US forces from traveling in Humvees outside of coalition bases. Troops have since been restricted to Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs)—mammoth metal boxes on wheels with V-shaped hulls designed to deflect undercarriage blasts. The author and former Australian intelligence officer David Kilcullen describes uparmored Humvees as “urban submarines,” because of the distance they place between troops and the local population. If Humvees cut troops off from the people they were supposed to be engaging, then thirty-thousand-pound MRAPs were going to be that much worse.

But last summer’s devastating attacks forced Colonel Haight’s hand. “In the month of August, we either hit or found at least one IED, if not multiple, every single day,” remembers Captain Andy Harris, the wiry, bespectacled Cincinnati native in command of Apache Company 2-87. All together the battalion’s five companies hit or disarmed more than three hundred IEDs in 2009. Countrywide, the number of IED attacks reached nearly six thousand for the year, accounting for 275 coalition deaths and over 2,000 total casualties. IED attacks now occur at roughly double the 2008 rate, and the bombs are increasingly deadly.

“We’ve hit all of our IEDs in MRAPs, and if we didn’t have them we would’ve had way more than two KIA,” Captain Harris tells me. Bundled against the nighttime chill in his plywood office, he tilts forward in his swivel chair for emphasis: “These IEDs would’ve obliterated our uparmored Humvees.”

Commanders credit the MRAPs with saving lives; accordingly, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will ship three thousand more to Afghanistan this year. But the fifteen-ton monster trucks suffer severe maneuverability limitations on Afghanistan’s narrow mountain tracks, meaning that much of the terrain critical to counterinsurgency work—isolated hamlets cut off from regional markets and governance—is inaccessible to mounted troops. To make matters worse, the army’s laborious route-clearance requirements for convoy movement place an unmanageable strain on unit resources and time, negating the tactical value of the vehicles’ extra firepower and communications platforms. That means the 2-87’s MRAPs—like the Humvees—usually stay behind the wire, while infantrymen conduct business on foot.

Soldiers from Second Platoon Blackhawk Company, 2-87 Infantry, on patrol in the Nerkh Valley in Wardak Province.

In the days before the Soviet occupation, the austere, bucolic elegance of valleys like the Tangi drew streams of adventurers to Afghanistan. Sprawling qalats gracefully scale its rocky cliffs, blending seamlessly into the tawny earth. Raisins and tomatoes dry on rooftops under the late-autumn sun. A patchwork of fruit orchards and wheat fields carpets the valley, nourished by the gently rolling Logar River. 

A sealed road snakes eastward along the southern valley wall toward a horizon of shadowy peaks. Beside the road, villagers live and work as if frozen in time. Farmers plow with water buffalo. Burka-clad women huddle on the riverbanks, scrubbing clothes in the gravelly riffles. Men hunch under towering loads of fodder, their long beards and fingernails stained orange by henna. The road handles all kinds of traffic: foraging, fat-tailed sheep; schoolchildren toting book straps, sequined skullcaps perched jauntily on their heads; yellow and white taxis making the run to Kabul; convoys of garishly adorned jingle trucks. For all its rugged beauty, however, the Tangi’s paved road will make it a contested site for the foreseeable future.

The Tangi road links the Kabul-Kandahar highway in Wardak, officially known as Highway 1, with a major north-south highway in neighboring Logar Province. It is the main artery for interprovincial commerce in the population centers south of the greater Kabul region. The road—code-named Route Georgia by coalition forces—is also the main logistical route for military convoys traveling between major forward operating bases (FOBs) in Wardak and Logar. It’s no surprise that anti-coalition forces have turned Route Georgia into a minefield. They know that the Americans and their coalition partners are as road-bound as the Soviets were and a hundred times more risk averse. The threat of the boom is the real weapon—derailing American momentum is as simple as paying someone to push a button.

IEDs also blow pits in the smooth road and strangle the valley’s economic lifeline—but the insurgency still manages to win in the battle of perceptions. Local resentment falls squarely on American shoulders: it’s the Americans who cause the traffic jams, dominating the road with their never-ending convoys and painstaking route-clearance procedures. And it’s the Americans who attracted the bad company in the first place. There were no explosions on the road before the Americans came. If the Americans weren’t around, traffic on the road would flow like the river beside it.

It’s here that Apache 2-87 has made its uncomfortable home since July. Combat Outpost (COP) Apache, a dusty plot of tents and plywood shacks wedged into a mountain spur, is rugged even by Afghan standards. Lumber and insulation have recently arrived so that Apache soldiers can fortify their tents before the winter freeze, but there are no luxuries. No hot water, no laundry facilities, no internet. Battered mail shipments arrive once a month or so. Hushed arguments between soldiers and wives back home usually tie up the company’s only phone, open for a few hours each day. Most soldiers fork out a dollar a minute to call their families on private mobiles.

Twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant Mark Hogan, commander of Second Platoon Apache Company, wades through waist-high wheat fields in the Tangi Valley during a daily IED sweep.

Life at COP Apache is grueling, filthy, and sparsely furnished, but the soldiers are oddly content with their digs. There’s no sergeant major around to bitch at them about five o’clock shadows and stray uniform threads, and they don’t have to share the COP with civilians and support personnel. If morale is low, it’s not because of living conditions. It’s because the soldiers have come to view the daily grind as an exercise in absurdity.

The severity of the IED threat means that dismounted route-clearance patrols along Route Georgia occupy the bulk of Apache 2-87’s operations schedule. It has been a bloody chore, costing one soldier his life and resulting in the evacuation of twenty-six more, including Captain Harris himself. (He has since returned to duty.) The task puts a strain on the company’s limited manpower and takes resources away from counterinsurgency operations—such as “chai missions,” chat sessions with elders over tea that provide invaluable knowledge about local needs and nuances.

Instead of engaging villagers, Captain Harris’s troops spend most days stomping through the Tangi’s orchards, scanning the muddy ground for command wires. The clearance patrols make the way safer for logistical convoys carrying food, lumber, and other essentials between bases in Wardak and Logar, but the added value for Captain Harris is negligible.

“It’s a company-size effort for me every time someone comes into the Tangi,” Captain Harris says. Apache’s troops have to do more than clear the way. They’re also responsible for security at the valley’s only garrison, and for permanently manning a mountaintop observation post and a Joint Security Station (JSS). “Basically,” Captain Harris says, “force-protection requirements are killing the maneuverability of Apache Company.”

A soldier passes by a qalat in the Nerkh Valley. Relations with locals are tense in the Nerkh, where the US Army has been unable to gain traction since arriving in early 2009.

It’s just after 6 A.M. when Second Platoon starts spilling out into the motor pool, running checks on the MRAPs and strapping on their gear. The groggy soldiers shiver in their flimsy combat shirts. They’ve left their fleece jackets and neck gaiters behind. They will warm up once they start walking, and they don’t want to carry a single ounce more than they have to.

A resupply convoy—known as a Combat Logistical Patrol (CLIP)—is coming in from battalion headquarters in Maydan Shahr. Second platoon has to clear the road in advance of their arrival, even though the convoy has a counter-IED unit in the lead, equipped with special MRAPs called “mine rollers” and a train of sophisticated explosives-detecting vehicles. “Everyone in the Army is worthless except the infantry,” a snarky specialist named Don Johnson grumbles. “The infantry always ends up doing everyone else’s jobs anyway.” Specialist Johnson shaved his shoulder-length dreadlocks to join the Army two years ago. This morning, he’s questioning his decision.

Marine Captain Ryan Maloney discusses a blood price with an Afghan elder after an Apache gunship killed an unarmed farmer in the Depak Valley.

The men cluster around the platoon leader, Lieutenant Mark Hogan, for a short briefing. The platoon will take the MRAPs down Route Georgia to a point just out of sight of the COP. One squad will dismount and move westward, clearing the fields to the north of the road, while the other squad mans the heavy weapons from the trucks. If there is time, the platoon will swing through the village bazaar in nearby Juy Zarin on the way home.

Lieutenant Hogan looks old for a platoon leader. His face is strong-jawed and leathery under several days’ growth. Later in the afternoon, he asks me to guess his age. “Thirtysomething,” I reply. He assumes I’m joking, but I’m not. He tells me he’s twenty-four. I only believe him when I see him the following day, freshly shaven and without his mirrored Oakley sunglasses.

As we spread out across a field of waist-high wheat, walking parallel to the road, Lieutenant Hogan maintains constant communication with his squad leaders. He keeps his soldiers in the open, avoiding embankments and elevated paths where insurgents have buried antipersonnel IEDs in the past. The soldiers are on autopilot, keeping proper distance from one another, communicating silently. No one even comments when we wade through a miniature forest of marijuana plants.

By 8 A.M. the platoon has cleared the target area. We’re halted under a grove of willows, waiting for the resupply convoy to come into view. The artillery forward observers and the platoon medic kick back against their packs on the damp ground. They smoke cigarettes and crack jokes about the National Guard counter-IED team. Rumors that the counter-IED troops have refused to get out of their vehicles are disproven when a pair of soldiers emerges from an orchard a half-kilometer away.

The pair makes its way toward the imaginary line that divides their area of responsibility in today’s sweep from Second Platoon’s area. Eventually, they reach the grove where we’re sitting. A freckled specialist with a thick Wisconsin accent plops down beside the forward observers and lights a Marlboro red. He and the Second Platoon soldiers begin trading stories about legendary Route Georgia IEDs.

Suddenly, as if on command, an explosion rocks the ground beneath us.

The platoon leaps into action. Lieutenant Hogan makes a command decision to push west and try to flush out the triggerman, or at least find the command wire and follow it to his hiding place. Less than a minute later, the platoon is kicking down the door to an abandoned qalat several hundred meters from the road. They clear the interior rooms one by one before dumping baskets of clothing on the floor, emptying cupboards, even holding up film negatives to the sun. It’s not clear what they’re hoping to find, and in the end they find nothing.

The adrenaline wears off. Hogan positions his men on the roof and sinks down against a shady wall. We wait. Communication arrives from the road. The IED has tipped an MRAP onto its side; the gunner has been lightly injured, but there are no serious casualties or damages. Still, the IED has served its purpose: the entire Tangi valley will suffer through another half-day traffic jam, and Lieutenant Hogan will have to visit Juy Zarin some other time.

We sit on the roof for the next five hours while the counter-IED team rights its MRAP and rigs controlled detonations to destroy the unexploded remnants of the IED. The day is gone.

When Second Platoon strolls through the village of Do Ab on a warm, breezy afternoon, the village kids throng the troops, pleading in a frenzied pantomime for wristwatches and pieces of kit. We make our way toward the school, a hundred or so shrieking boys skipping behind us. The guardian of the school—a wisp of an old man—swats at the children with his cane. The boys laugh hysterically at the old crank, until he thwacks one of them across the knuckles. The sound of cane on bone makes me flinch.

The headmaster and the school’s two teachers welcome Lieutenant Hogan into a tiny, unheated office. Lieutenant Hogan takes off his helmet and his body armor and sets his rifle on the ground. It is a gesture of trust taken from the book of Petraeus and McChrystal, a signal that he is human despite the deadly force at his fingertips.

While at West Point, Hogan received some training in such field counterinsurgency tactics as key-leader engagements and village assessments, in which soldiers evaluate new areas of operation according to the acronym SWEAT MS: Sewage, Water, Electricity, Academics, Trash, Medical, and Security; but no amount of training could have prepared him for the complex reality on the ground. “The first time we came through Juy Zarin, stores would close up, parents would hit their kids for talking to us, streets would empty.” That was in July. Four months later, the elders in surrounding villages are finally offering Lieutenant Hogan chai—a testament to his patient persistence.

The brutal Afghan winter is coming on fast, and Lieutenant Hogan has come to ask the men what the school needs to winterize. I have heard countless tales about the guile of Afghans wherever US handouts are concerned, and about their skill in extorting from naïve US officers, but the requests of these men are modest. They sit shoulder to shoulder across from Lieutenant Hogan, silent except for their replies to his questions. “We need wood for the stoves,” they say. “We also need lumber to improve the building. And we need blankets.”

The men watch Lieutenant Hogan as he jots notes. After a few minutes, the headmaster politely informs Lieutenant Hogan that the teachers must start their classes. We say our goodbyes and start for the door. Lieutenant Hogan assures the headmaster that he will do his best to get wood and blankets for the school. The headmaster does not seem entirely convinced; he will wait to see if Lieutenant Hogan comes through.

We make our way back through the village, and the swarm of kids falls in behind us again. Lieutenant Hogan is the pied piper of Do Ab. Adults take interest too. Unseen women send their sons running to dole out fresh naan. Turbaned men cram into the stuffy shops, staring with amusement as the soldiers stuff their rucksacks with bags of fresh green tea and sugar. The soldiers buy cigarettes by the armload. They pay with US dollars. The shop owners play it cool, as if it’s completely normal to do business with these camouflage giants. The shops have turned a week’s worth of profits in minutes—as effective a development initiative as any that has taken place in the Tangi this year.

Outside, I notice Lieutenant Hogan standing apart from the mob. He looks agitated. A cagey teenager in a black vest and an olive shalwar kameez tries in vain to shoo the children away. He whispers something to one of the sergeants. Stay away from the children. The soldiers have drawn too much attention to themselves. They may as well have fired a signal flare. No telling who’s watching, or who has been alerted to their presence. If they are attacked, children will get hurt. They’re putting themselves and the villagers at risk by staying longer. It’s time to move.

As we walk, Lieutenant Hogan confesses that he is not fooled by the thaw in Juy Zarin and Do Ab. He suspects that the villagers’ more hospitable attitude may have little to do with Apache’s counterinsurgency campaign—which has never really gotten off the ground—and more to do with the changing season. It’s almost November, and Pakistan-based insurgents all over Afghanistan are packing it up for the winter, making their way toward the border before heavy snows block the mountain passes.

A soldier from Second Platoon Apache Company searches an abandoned qalat moments after an IED exploded on a nearby road.

Juy Zarin and Do Ab villagers are also probably more confident than other Tangi residents because they are close to COP Apache, within the radius of Apache Company’s daily counter-IED and presence patrols. In more-isolated villages down the road, villagers are still too scared to talk to Hogan’s men in public. One elder, also a teacher, told Hogan, “Don’t ever come to my home to find me. Don’t ever ask for me by name. If you want me, I’ll be at the school, but pretend you don’t know me.”

We amble back to the JSS, a rented qalat a few kilometers down the road from COP Apache where Second Platoon is camped out for the week. The JSS is supposed to house a platoon of US infantry and a garrison of ANP, but there are no ANP in the Tangi yet—an indicator of the severity of Afghanistan’s security-infrastructure deficiencies. There is a CLIP coming from battalion headquarters in Maydan Shahr tomorrow and Lieutenant Hogan wants to request wood for the Do Ab school. He radios the Apache Company radio room and asks them to pass the request to battalion headquarters. “I saw a pile of scrap lumber in the Class IV yard last time I was at FOB Airborne,” he tells the radio operator, excited at the thought of making good on his pledge so soon. COP Apache relays the request to 2-87 headquarters. The response crackles over the handset a few seconds later—“Negative.”

Before my last patrol in Afghanistan, with Captain Mojatba’s company and a four-man Marine Corps Embedded Transition Team, a characteristically handsome young Marine captain from Rhode Island named Ryan Maloney makes clear that he is not in charge of the operation, that Captain Mojatba will be running things. The patrol is supposed to be a real-time exercise in a potentially hostile valley called the Depak, just four kilometers off the backside of FOB Airborne. No American or Afghan troops have been into the Depak in months, and Captain Maloney suspects the patrol might flush out the insurgents responsible for a recent spate of mortar and rocket attacks on the FOB.

We load into MRAPs for the short drive to the patrol’s starting point. Captain Mojatba’s troops pile into camouflaged Ford Rangers. The Afghans are loaded down with belts of machine-gun ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades. Their affinity for decorative helmet stickers and other kitsch gives some of them a comical appearance, but all in all they look like the professional soldiers they have become. When we step off, the Afghan troops keep their distance from one another just as the Americans have taught them. They do not complain under the weight of their gear. Captain Mojatba’s radio operator maintains constant communication with the platoon leaders; his museum-piece Soviet radio spews forth a constant stream of Dari chatter. Most of the men are Dari-speaking Tajik, like Captain Mojatba, or Hazara, a group of Central Asian Muslims of Mongol descent. Mojatba’s company, like most ANA units, has few Pashtuns.

We pick our way slowly through one quiet village and then another. We stop to have chai with an elder. The old man spreads a blanket for us in the middle of his apple grove and sends his grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, to bring flatbread and a stew made of onions and broth. He tells Captain Mojatba that security is good in the Depak, nothing to worry about. We leave the man waving goodbye as we spread out across a freshly plowed field.

In the next village, a group of men is busy feeding hay into a portable, diesel-powered grinder. They smile broadly when we arrive. A brood of kids stares down at us from a stone wall. They are bashful and scatter when I lift my camera. We linger for a few minutes so the Army Civil Affairs team, who has accompanied us, can talk to the villagers. The day has grown warm and languorous. I think of how nice it would be to shed my protective equipment and spend the afternoon chatting with the villagers.

We press on. I follow the Marines up a switchback to the summit of a hill overlooking the village. A squad from Mojatba’s company has taken up a position here. A Special Forces team on the ridge to the south, which has been watching over us all morning, radios to tell the Marines that they have observed a group of men in black “manjammies” cutting across a nearby field toward Mojatba’s men. The men are armed, and a Special Forces sniper is set to engage them. High-powered rifle shots crack off one by one, spaced a few seconds apart, for several minutes. The farmers have disappeared, and we are alone with the valley walls.

The Special Forces team radios again to say that they have spotted an IED triggerman hiding along the banks of a river to our north. They have called in an air strike. An F-15 screams overhead. Black earth erupts from an empty field and a tower of smoke rises from the hole. A miss. The F-15 makes another pass. This time, the bomb lands high up on the valley wall. Another miss. I begin to wonder if there is even a target.

When bullets whiz by your head, they make a sound like fingers snapping. Imagine a finger snap amplified about a hundred times, so that it leaves your ears ringing. I only learned this a few weeks before, when a sniper took a long and impressive shot from the floor of the Tangi all the way up to the OP a thousand feet above, where I was sitting—carelessly exposed—with an Apache soldier. This time, when I hear the snapping sound, I flatten myself to the ground and crawl to the nearest large rock. Luckily, Afghanistan is a rocky place, and within seconds I am safely behind cover. The insurgents had held their fire as the ANA and Marines pushed through the village; they had been looking down from a perch high on the valley wall, waiting until the Marines had turned their backs. It is exactly as Captain Mojatba would later describe: with a hundred Afghan targets to choose from, the insurgents focus their fire on the Marines.

Captain Maloney’s men train their M-240B machine gun on a section of the valley wall to our southeast, directly under a clump of prayer flags, where the SF team has said that the insurgents are hiding. The fire is suppressive, preventing the insurgents from shooting another belt at the Marines’ position. From my vantage point on the western hill, a few feet from the Marines, the insurgent machine gunners are invisible. Dressed in black shalwar kameez, they blend in perfectly with the shadowy scree.

The Afghan soldiers are hunkered down, scattered hither and yon. They have no communication with the Special Forces spotters. Some of them fire a few wild bursts out of nervousness, but they make no concerted effort to advance on the insurgent position. They are waiting for the air strikes they have come to expect. They are counting on the disproportionate force provided by their American stewards.

An Apache gunship slinks into the valley, making low turns over the insurgents’ suspected location midway up the southeastern valley wall, tilting on its side so that the gunner can scan the earth from the cockpit. The Apache does not fire. Inexplicably, it circles away toward the northern valley wall, making several passes over an unplanted field before lighting up a tree line on the riverbank, several hundred meters from where the F-15 dropped its first bomb. The Apache makes a second pass at the tree line. The exploding rounds from its 30 mm cannon send up showers of dirt and little puffs of smoke. After the second pass, a man in a white shalwar kameez stumbles out of the trees and into the field, his arms raised above his head, or maybe clutching at his head, I can’t tell. The Apache makes a third, excruciatingly slow pass, spitting 30 mm rounds into the dark earth around the man. He is standing, dazed, when the gunship circles around for a forth pass. This time he falls. He is still.

The Marines are busy communicating with the Special Forces team and trying to spot the insurgent machine gunners to the southeast. They haven’t seen the drama that transpired in the field to the north, but one of Captain Mojatba’s platoon leaders watched the whole episode. He is shaking his head, saying, again and again, “No, no, no.” He is furious. He knows what I know: the man was clearly unarmed, and if it was clear to us from our vantage point some three hundred meters away, it had to have been even clearer to the Apache crew a few meters over his head.

Captain Maloney is not content to wait for the Apache to kill the insurgent machine gunners. The bait-and-wait tactic does not suit the Marine officer’s native aggressiveness. More important, Mojatba’s men may be able to capture the insurgents and gain vital intelligence from them. But Captain Mojatba and his men are now in no mood to move. Finally, Maloney cajoles Mojatba to move his men out. The ANA and Marines advance together toward the hill where the insurgents are thought to be hiding. As they approach the base of the hill, the Apache sweeps in low and releases another volley of 30 mm shots, this time only about fifty meters ahead of the troops. When the troops crest the hill, they find a crumpled mass of human limbs in a black shalwar kameez. The man’s brain has been ejected from his skull. His chest is pressed to the ground, and his face, jaw agape, spattered with blood and black grit, stares skyward. Nearby, ANA troops find a belt of machine-gun ammunition. They also find a blood trail leading back to the village we had passed earlier in the day. One of the machine gunners has escaped, wounded but alive. He is probably hiding in the village, but it will be dark soon and Captain Maloney advises against chasing him.

Soldiers use a high-powered night vision device to scan the main road of the Tangi Valley from a mountaintop observation post. The soldiers are looking for insurgents planting IEDs in a road where there have been dozens of attacks since Apache Company arrived in summer 2009.

We make our way down the hill. Captain Maloney wants to send a team to inspect the impact craters of the F-15 bombing runs. I tell Captain Maloney that there is another dead man in the empty field by the riverbank. A group of ANA is already walking along the raised embankments dividing the flooded fields toward the place where the man fell. I follow them. When we arrive, we find a very old, very thin man facedown in the mud. Two Afghan troops turn the body over. He is already stiff. His palms are outstretched, his face frozen, expressionless. He looks at least eighty. I do not see a drop of blood anywhere. I wonder if the man had a heart attack. He could have died from fear. The ANA troops pull the man’s bright blue shawl from under his shoulders. They gently cover his body, leaving only his feet exposed. No one says a word.

Marine Captain Maloney (far right) communicates with Army Special Forces and aircraft in the midst of a brief firefight with insurgents in the Depak Valley.

“I do not believe any military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque, and Sisyphean mission as the US has received in Afghanistan,” Matthew Hoh wrote in his resignation letter, submitted after five months of service with the US State Department in Zabul Province, an insurgent hotbed on the southern border with Pakistan. Hoh—a former Marine officer, an Iraq veteran, and a rising star in the Foreign Service—was lukewarm about going to Afghanistan in the first place. He accepted the post amid hopes that a sea change in US policy was in the offing, ushered in by General McChrystal and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. In Hoh’s estimation, it didn’t happen. “Like the Soviets, we continue to bolster and secure a failing state,” he wrote, “while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.”

Hoh’s letter hangs like a cloud over McChrystal’s new strategy, a stinging counterpoint to the general’s duty-bound plan of action. But resignation is not an option General McChrystal is likely to consider, and it is certainly not a choice for the troops under his command. President Obama has chosen to escalate US involvement in Afghanistan, and the military will carry out its orders, Sisyphean or not. The real question is: Even with an ironclad strategy and thirty thousand extra troops, can international forces and civilian advisers save fragile Afghanistan? Or is ISAF merely delaying the country’s natural dissolution into yaghestan?

Insurgents are betting on yaghestan.

They recognize that eight years of strategy have failed to produce measurable progress in Afghanistan, and 2009 is probably too late to get started. Patience is threadbare among Afghans. It’s also abysmally low in ISAF’s European member nations. The Germans no longer leave their bases. The French train Afghans, nothing more. The British have taken such a pounding in the south—104 dead in 2009 alone—that they’re likely to scale back operations to minimize politically disastrous consequences at home, as they did in southern Iraq two years ago.

McChrystal’s fresh brigades may enable ISAF to strip the initiative from insurgents at this decisive moment, but what then? The disparate forces arrayed against the coalition and the Afghan government are confident of their natural advantage. The Afghan government is a house of cards. Yaghestan is wind and gravity.

Later in the evening after the incident in the Depak, a few village elders scale the steep path to the place where we’re getting ready to camp for the night. The old man’s son has come to inquire about his father’s death. “Why did you do this?” he asks Captain Maloney. Captain Mojatba absents himself from the discussion. The Marines’ interpreter translates Captain Maloney’s response. “Tell him it hurts my heart when innocent people get killed. Americans were under attack and trying to defend our Afghan brothers.”

The men demand payment for their tribesman’s murder, a rite from pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of ethics. Something can be arranged, Captain Maloney assures the men. The military has money set aside for these sorts of things.

The interpreter writes a note in Pashto authorizing the man’s son to visit Captain Maloney at FOB Airborne to discuss the payment. The men shake hands with the captain and return the way they came.

The sun is setting as the funeral procession files out from the village toward the graveyard. Islamic tradition says the dead must be washed and entombed before sundown. We watch the tiny figures from our hill. Then we climb higher.


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