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.
Encouraged, Stammer instructed an Afghan interpreter to ask the village elder if the soldiers could rent a compound for the night. Abdul Satar, a man with a long beard and white turban, readily agreed.
As soon as he reached the courtyard, Stammer, a tall, broad-shouldered man who looks like a football coach, took off his helmet and beckoned his host's children to gather around as he pulled donated stuffed animals and pencils from his backpack.
"Where are the girls?" Stammer asked, as a throng of little boys pressed around him. "I want to make sure the girls get these, too."
The women of the household huddled in a dusty corner, peeking out from under the bright red and green scarves with which they traditionally hide their faces from strangers.
"Okay, now let's lay a little love on the grown-ups," Stammer said, and ordered his radio operator to call for an air drop of supplies including blankets and sacks of beans.
Next, he asked the battalion's doctor, Maj. Brian Sleigh, and some of the medics to offer their services. The villagers eagerly lined up. Most had curable ailments -- diarrhea or viral infections in the case of the children, cataracts in some of the men. But Sleigh noted that even if he could arrange for drugs to be delivered, there was no doctor or pharmacist to administer them. Instead Sleigh mostly handed out painkillers.
"I can't cure you, but I can give you something to help with the pain," he said to patient after patient.
By now, Stammer judged the ice sufficiently broken to instruct an interpreter to ask Satar the question on everybody's mind: "Have you seen any Taliban around here?"
"He says the Taliban haven't been through for months," the interpreter responded.
The assertion was nonsense, Stammer said. "But that's okay," he added peaceably. In a region where informing could cost a person his life, Stammer said, a villager who lied about the militia's whereabouts was not necessarily a Taliban supporter.
So Stammer moved on to what he called his "unity" speech. He stressed that the U.S. military was there only to help the Afghan people, and he urged Satar to organize villagers to present their needs to Zabol's governor and vote for an official representative in parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
Satar smiled and nodded. But one of the interpreters said afterward that the elder later confided to him that even this modest proposal was too risky.
"He told me, 'If I do that, I won't stay alive very long,' " the interpreter recounted. "He said, 'You guys are very nice. But you only come around once in a while. The Taliban will come here as soon as you are gone.' "
Within hours of the unit's arrival, the village men were pressing green tea and freshly baked bread on their visitors. Some even started trying on the soldiers' helmets, wrapping their turbans around them to hearty chuckles all around.
Stammer was pleased, but also a touch suspicious.
"Why are these people being so nice to us?" he muttered to the operations officer, Maj. Doug Vincent. "We've been in villages where people wouldn't spit on us if we were on fire in their living room. But these people are being over-the-top nice."
"I don't know, sir," Vincent said. "Do you think maybe they have someone in town and they don't want us to do a cordon and search?"
"Think about that," Stammer said. "Also think about whether they are trying to set up an ambush."
Stammer and his men had ample reason to be wary. Several soldiers on the mission had been on patrol with 14 Afghan policemen on May 3 when they stumbled upon a gathering of 60 to 80 Taliban fighters, triggering one of the most intense battles in Afghanistan since 2001.
As that fight unfolded, the U.S. team of six scouts and a medic, in two armored Humvees, was ordered to keep the enemy from retreating before ground and air reinforcements arrived. The team managed to do it during 2 1/2 hours of relentless fighting, during which no one was killed but one Humvee was hit by a rocket and burst into flames.
Yet even once the battalion's reaction force was flown in, the Taliban fought on for four hours, killing one Afghan policeman and wounding six U.S. soldiers and five Afghan police officers.
In the end, the American and Afghan forces prevailed, killing nearly 40 Taliban fighters and capturing 10. Battalion soldiers who participated said they felt proud to have put their training to use.
But many now carry the sort of memories that often haunt veterans of major wars -- the surprised, all-too-human look on an enemy fighter's face as seen through a rifle scope just before he is blown apart, or the stress of repeatedly driving into hails of rocket fire with no expectation of surviving.
"Afterward, my wife asked me what was going through my head," said Sgt. Michael Ortiz, the medic who was with the ambushed scout team. "I told her, 'Everything. Just every single thing you can imagine.' "
Back in Badamtoy, Stammer and his men were settling in the next morning for a long wait for a helicopter to ferry them back to the base when their banter was interrupted by one of the radio operators. A report had just come through that Akundzada might be in a village called Kawti, just a few miles north.
Stammer instantly switched into battle mode, directing his men to draw up plans for a multi-pronged assault including Afghan security forces and to arrange for Chinook helicopters to transport them to the site.
A few hours before sunset, the group trekked up a hill to board a Chinook. But the new village turned out to like the previous one: a series of humble, mud-walled compounds occupied by passive, if slightly less welcoming, farmers. Akundzada had slipped through their fingers again.
Soon, Stammer was back on the radio, ordering another food drop to win over the people of Kawti while his men searched for smooth ground on which to unroll their sleeping bags.
Ortiz steeled himself for a long night of watching the stars. Like many soldiers who experienced the fierce fight of May 3, he had been unable to sleep for several nights afterward.
Now, Ortiz said, he had no trouble falling asleep indoors. "But not outside. Not where I know someone is out there watching me."