Other commanders had their own spies who led them around the detritus of aid efforts usurped by the Taliban: bridges built with U.S. funds, a clinic funded by the Swedish Committee, a mosque built by the government of Kuwait.
For the soldiers, it was like discovering a lost world in which the Taliban’s shadow government finally took physical shape. In between firefights, they took photos of each other standing in front of Taliban buildings, straddling motorcycles that belonged to suspected insurgent commanders.
The tempo picked up quickly as they continued into the valley. The soldiers burst through doors and into small markets where men sat quietly and waited to be questioned.
“What are you doing here?” Sgt. Falak Naaz said. “What does your father do? Do you know where the Taliban commanders are?”
Almost all of the men shrugged. They were farmers, they said, or shopkeepers. They did not know any Talibs. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s alternate title, “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” was scrawled over everything. A Taliban madrassa included piles of paperwork from the insurgency’s own education department, including a mandate that students keep their beards long.
The Afghan commanders knew they were being lied to.
“When they see us, they put down their guns and pick up shovels and tell us they are farmers,” Daowood said. “Then they pick up their guns again.”
When the battalion entered the village of Hassankhel, gunfire came from all directions. On the ridgeline, there was no Afghan army presence to support the soldiers fighting in the village.
“Where’s our cover? These soldiers are lazy and scared. Where is their commander!?” Daowood screamed.
When the firefight ended, two soldiers carried a lieutenant, Mustafa, from one of the mud-brick village homes. He was shot in the stomach and bleeding badly. His platoon commander, Capt. Rahim Sadeq, looked around frantically. The Afghan army’s medevac capacity is notoriously underdeveloped. Out of desperation, the platoon commander asked a Post reporter to call for an American helicopter. (He had no such ability.)
Instead, the soldiers stole a wheelbarrow from a local farmer and lifted Lt. Mustafa into it. They raced out of the valley. What happened next confused American and Afghan troops involved in the Tangi operation. U.S. forces agreed to loan the Afghans a helicopter for the medevac, but after 40 minutes of waiting, as Mustafa bled, the Afghan Defense Ministry denied the request.
“It was baffling,” said one U.S. adviser.
Mustafa, who like many Afghans uses only one name, made it to a Kabul hospital by road. He is recovering. But the frustration of being abandoned without air medevac has taken its toll on the Afghan army. Last month, a soldier in Wardak waited 24 hours for an air medevac. He bled to death.