“You are tools of Pakistan!” one soldier screamed.
“You are worthless Talibs,” said another.
The men stood for 20 minutes waiting for their punishment.
Daowood launched into an impassioned speech. For a long time, it remained unclear whether the men would be beaten, released or detained.
“There are no Americans here, just Muslims. Why did you shoot our Muslim soldier?” he asked.
There was no response. Then Daowood abruptly shooed all the men away, including the two who had been in the same house as Mustafa’s shooter, who apparently fled.
Another battalion took a different approach with a suspect they apprehended during a firefight, parading the slow-talking, shifty-eyed man named Wazir around the Tangi in handcuffs. Then they drove him to the operation headquarters outside the valley, where American advisers and Afghan officers gawked at him.
A few U.S. soldiers snapped photos of the man, with his bloodstained shirt, and were immediately reprimanded. It was the closest they would get to the battle.
“You are violating coalition policy!” screamed Lt. Col. John Allen. “Turn in your cameras.”
The Americans, heads down, handed over their digital cameras. The Afghans continued tugging at the detainee’s beard and asking him questions he did not understand or pretended not to hear.
‘The Taliban will be back’
By the third day, insurgent opposition had mostly faded. Soldiers were still uprooting makeshift bombs, but none had detonated under their vehicles. All of the wounded looked as if they would survive. The mood grew increasingly buoyant.
Daowood’s battalion surged further into the valley in their pickups, racing over a road that had not yet been checked for mines. Soldiers charged into a house they said belonged to a Taliban commander and made themselves tea. They lay their findings on the grass: rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and several Afghan army uniforms that could be used for sneaking into the enemy’s ranks.
For the first time in more than two years, they saw their old outpost that had been overrun. The Taliban had shot a video of dozens of fighters entering the base on motorcycles, waving Kalashnikovs in the air. On this day, though, the streets were quiet. Just one old man shuffled toward the troops and berated them as they made their way toward the outpost.
“You invited everyone here — the Americans, the Europeans,” he said. “It’s a betrayal.”
The Afghan troops responded as they did all week. The Americans are gone. Blaming foreign intruders no longer made sense.
“This is an Afghan mission,” Sadeq said.
The soldiers walked into an old USAID-funded clinic, where, amid the celebration, one local man whispered his thoughts about the futility of the Afghan National Army operation.
“It doesn’t matter if the Taliban or the ANA is here. They are both good with us,” he said, before pausing. “The Taliban will be back.”
Afghan soldiers knew that to be true, too.
During the peak of the U.S. military surge here, American commanders pushed into Taliban strongholds and stayed there. But the Afghans do not have the money or manpower to set up a string of new outposts in the Tangi. In Wardak, the lack of U.S. support is a function not just of the American drawdown but also of President Hamid Karzai’s demand this year that U.S. Special Forces troops leave the province after locals accused them of torture.
Before packing their bags, the Afghan soldiers watched many of the men who they had briefly detained strolling around the villages of Tangi.
“They’re all Talibs,” said Naaz, the sergeant, scowling at the men.
“They know we will leave,” said Badakshani, the executive officer.
After the sunset Thursday, the Afghan soldiers poured out of the valley. Some of the soldiers carried souvenirs from their trip into the Tangi. One man stole a bandage from a confiscated Taliban medical kit and used it to wrap a bleeding finger. The American advisers left the small shipping container from which they had been tracking their advisees’ progress.
Twelve hours later, according to locals in the Tangi, the Taliban reemerged.
About 200 to 300 insurgents returned from nearby villages, they said. Some merely stepped out of the homes in which they had been hiding. Many of them carried Kalashnikovs in public view. Taliban officials denied that the Afghan operation had changed anything, saying the valley would remain under their power forever.
“The Afghan and American soldiers were not able to establish their control in the past 12 years in any part of the valley,” said Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf. “Their presence on the road was temporary. . . . They cannot keep their forces there for long.”
Mohammed Sharif contributed to this report.