Fighting a Hard, Half-Forgotten War

Passing Out Stuffed Animals and Pencils
Lt. Col. Mark Stammer gives stuffed animals and pencils to children in Badamtoy, in southeast Afghanistan, in an effort to win local support. (Nurith Aizenman - The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

QALAT, Afghanistan -- When Spec. Nick Conlon and the other members of his infantry battalion learned they would be deployed to the Afghan province of Zabol this spring, many expected their worst enemy to be boredom. In preparation, Conlon stocked up on more than 20 DVDs, such as "Alien vs. Predator," "X-Men" and "Daredevil."

But in the three months since the battalion set up camp in this isolated, mountainous region of southeastern Afghanistan, Conlon has not had time to watch a single movie. Instead, the battalion has found itself at the center of a heated though somewhat forgotten war that is still underway 3 1/2 years after the extremist Taliban militia was ousted from power.

The Taliban forces, estimated at anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 fighters, cannot hold territory against U.S. forces. But the battalion in Zabol has been attacked more than 10 times since March. During one bloody seven-hour clash in Zabol in May and in a series of pitched firefights across the south and east since then, the Taliban has revealed itself to be a hardy, resilient foe equipped with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

U.S. and Afghan military leaders contend that most of the battles are products of an aggressive campaign they launched this spring to force Taliban fighters from their hideouts. In Zabol, the fighters appear wary of taking on U.S. troops directly after suffering heavy casualties, but they continue to ambush U.S. patrols with gunfire and improvised explosives -- such as one that claimed the battalion's first fatality, Pfc. Steven C. Tucker, 19, of Grapevine, Tex., on May 21.

Meanwhile, the men of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, have had to drastically adjust their expectations.

"I thought the Taliban had fallen," Conlon marveled recently. "I thought this was going to be a peacekeeping mission."

For most members of the battalion, normally based in Vicenza, Italy, home is now a sprawling camp of sheds set on a baking desert plain on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Qalat. Much of their time is spent stalking the enemy in remote valleys and mountains still largely beyond the government's reach.

The high altitude and rocky terrain can feel unforgiving to a man lugging 50 to 100 pounds of weaponry and gear. But the area also offers views of uncommon beauty. Purple and golden peaks gleam in the distance; rushing streams are flanked by blue flowers and fragrant sage.

It was into just such a scene that a Black Hawk helicopter landed on a recent morning, disgorging a group of soldiers led by Lt. Col. Mark Stammer, the battalion commander. Like most overnight missions, this one was partly a goodwill tour to win local support and partly a hunt for a Taliban leader believed to be moving through the area.

The target that day, a sub-commander known as Abdul Akundzada, was thought to control 40 to 60 fighters and was known for threatening villagers who tried to send their children to government schools, according to battalion officers. A day earlier, one of the U.S. units pursuing Akundzada was ambushed by his men, leading to a firefight.

An Air Force jet was able to find and bombard the Taliban fighters soon after they fled to a hideout in the mountains, killing 12 of them. But Akundzada managed to escape. Stammer thought the Taliban leader might be fleeing north and hoped to intercept him in Badamtoy, a hamlet of half a dozen mud-walled compounds.

He and his men jumped out of a helicopter ready for battle, crouching in a wheat field and training their weapons on potential enemy positions. But Badamtoy's mostly elderly male inhabitants offered no resistance.

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