Two weeks earlier, Staff Sgt. William “Billy” Wilson III had been shot and killed by a rogue Afghan police officer. That incident prompted some men in his battalion to question whether the U.S.-Afghan partnership in their corner of the country might soon give out. Some of Wilson’s friends secretly hoped it would.
But U.S. commanders went out of their way to assure American and Afghan soldiers that the partnership would not — could not — waiver, despite 20 incidents of fratricide this year. They mourned Wilson. They lectured their men on the Taliban’s efforts to weaken the alliance. And they planned a joint mission to Spina that would affirm their commitment and trust in the wake of tragedy.
“We tell them, ‘This is how the enemy tries to drive a wedge between us,’ ” said Capt. Jim Perkins, Wilson’s former commander. “We can’t let them succeed.”
The “shock absorbency” of the U.S.-Afghan relationship, some American officials say, has also kept Afghan soldiers from abandoning the partnership after NATO personnel burned dozens of Korans on a military base, and after Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged with murdering 17 civilians in Kandahar province. The relationship in the field appears to have reached a stasis in which isolated betrayals don’t threaten to undermine broader progress, they say.
That relationship has in Paktika become a transactional one, with Afghan forces dealing directly with Afghan villagers and Americans handling the operational logistics and much of the intelligence gathering.
Spina is considered one of the most significant Taliban strongholds in the region — a common stopover for insurgents on their way to and from Pakistan. There is no regular U.S. or Afghan security presence in the village. It’s so unstable that even the district sub-governor — Spina’s ostensible conduit to the capital, Kabul — hasn’t visited in five years. He lives nearly 10 miles away.
A ground mission would force Afghan and American soldiers closer together — on the same patrols and into the same makeshift bases. Col. Curtis Taylor announced the mission days before Wilson was buried, before writing a eulogy that included a line reflecting the blow endured by the 172nd Brigade: “His death hit this task force like a hurricane.”
Taylor was adamant that the storm not consume his battalion’s primary goal of extending the reach of the Afghan security forces. He said the mission would be “Afghan-led” — a term that U.S. military officials use to suggest the long-term sustainability of the decade-long war effort, which will soon be inherited by this country’s soldiers and policemen.