U.S. troops battle to hand off a valley resistant to Afghan governance

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 12:00 AM

IN PECH VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN -- Earlier this year, Lt. Col. Joseph Ryan concluded that his 800-soldier battalion was locked in an endless war for an irrelevant valley.

"There is nothing strategically important about this terrain," said Ryan, 41, a blunt commander who has spent much of the past decade in combat. "We fight here because the enemy is here. The enemy fights here because we are here."

Ryan's challenge for the past several months has been to figure out a way to leave the Pech Valley, home to about 100,000 Afghans, without handing the insurgents a victory. This fall he launched a series of offensives into the mountains to smash Taliban sanctuaries. His goal is to turn the valley over to Afghan army and police units who would work out their own accommodation with bloodied insurgents.

"The best thing we can do is to pull back," he said, "and let the Afghans figure this place out."

On the afternoon of Nov. 12, Ryan's plan reached a critical moment. A company of his soldiers was clearing a village in the mountains when it came under attack. One American and two Afghan soldiers were killed.

Ryan ordered his troops to pursue the enemy deeper into the mountains, kicking off a gun battle that spanned six days and resulted in the deaths of more than 60 Taliban fighters, U.S. military officials said.

Six of Ryan's soldiers and one Army Ranger from another unit were killed. "Losing those soldiers was a huge price," said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, the senior commander for eastern Afghanistan. "What they did was very important. This was a significant disruption of the enemy's network."

For Ryan's soldiers, the outcome wasn't nearly as clear.

In today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, victory is often a moving target. When U.S. troops surged into Iraq in 2007 after several years of missteps, U.S. commanders defined winning primarily as a reduction in the sectarian killings that had brought the country to the brink of civil war.

In some parts of Afghanistan, troops are fighting to build a government and Afghan security forces in the midst of an effective and deadly insurgency. In other places, like the Pech Valley, where there is little history of governance and a deep suspicion of outsiders, U.S. goals have been scaled back. These troops are fighting so that Afghan officials can figure out a way to coexist with a committed and ideological resistance.

In the days after their battle in the mountains, some of Ryan's soldiers questioned whether their commander - a steady officer carrying out a thankless mission - had asked too much of them in pursuit of a fleeting victory. A few young soldiers struggled with a sense of betrayal.

Letters to loved ones

"I really wish I was never put in a position where I had to write a letter like this," 1st Lt. David Broyles wrote in a small leather-bound notebook his wife had sent him.

It was the evening of Nov. 11 and in a few hours Broyles's platoon was going to board a Chinook helicopter bound for the village of Tsangar. Broyles's platoon was based at Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle, one of four American bases in the Pech Valley.

Tsangar sat in the mountains, less than three miles north of Broyles's outpost. The 31-year-old lieutenant was writing letters in case he didn't make it back alive.

He wrote first to his wife: "I expect you to be happy. Whatever makes you happy - go with it." He instructed his 4-year-old son to listen to his mother: "Everything she does is for you and your best interests."

A few hours later Broyles spoke to his platoon: "We are going to go up there and take care of each other," he said. "That is going to be our number one priority."

Broyles's 40-soldier platoon - one of three tapped to clear Tsangar - landed in the high ground surrounding the village in the predawn hours of Nov. 12. This account was assembled from soldiers' descriptions of the fighting and from military logs.

The soldiers had just begun moving into Tsangar when insurgents struck with a blast of machine-gun, mortar and rocket-propelled-grenade fire. The worst of the barrage was aimed at his sister platoon several hundred yards away.

A 25-year-old Army medic was killed while treating a wounded colleague. Two Afghan soldiers were blown to pieces by rocket-propelled grenades.

The insurgents then fled to a cluster of villages higher in the mountains. Ryan, who was following the battle on the radio from one of the American outposts in the valley, abandoned his plans to have his soldiers continue down the mountain on foot.

He brought in more troops and ordered his Alpha Company, which included Broyles's platoon, to reload and climb the mountain. Ryan wanted his troops to pursue and kill the enemy.

Comrades and tattoos

Before they could move, Broyles's soldiers waited for helicopters to pull out the dead from the day's fighting and ferry in extra ammunition, food and water.

Spec. Cory Petrosky, the platoon's primary radio operator, found a spot to rest about 10 yards from the three black bags holding the bodies of the medic and the Afghan soldiers. Petrosky, 19, had been through plenty of hit-and-run attacks in the Pech Valley. The fighters in the mountains were more numerous, more deadly and more determined.

Petrosky was typically at Broyles's side. Despite different backgrounds, the two had become friends.

Broyles had graduated from Ohio State University and then spent four years as an enlisted soldier before becoming an officer. He was lanky, earnest and eager to connect with the Afghans. He struggled to make small talk with the elders in the valley even after his interpreters had stopped translating, pressing ahead in English with compliments about the tea and hospitality.

Petrosky, who has spiky brown hair and sleepy eyes, said he dropped out of high school and enlisted at age 17 after police showed up at his mother's office in a Dallas suburb with pictures of him selling drugs.

A few weeks before he deployed, Petrosky got the names of eight of his fellow soldiers from his platoon tattooed on his left forearm. "They are the ones who helped me mentally," he said.

Both Petrosky and Broyles had the same thought when they looked at what was left of their sister platoon, which had suffered 10 wounded and one dead. "You can't help but think that is going to be us tomorrow," Broyles said.

Shortly before sunrise, the soldiers used thermite grenades to melt down the bloody body armor of the dead and injured. The armor was too heavy to carry and they didn't want the enemy to use it. Then they headed toward the village of Qatar Darrayea, a treacherous 1.5-mile uphill hike from Tsangar.

On Nov. 13, the second day of the mission, insurgents swarmed the platoon. As bullets snapped over Broyles's head, he spotted a Taliban fighter about 50 yards away carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. It was the first time he had actually seen the face of one of the fighters trying to kill him. He fired his rifle at the insurgent and was certain he had hit him.

But after the battle Broyles and his troops could find no body or blood trail.

That evening helicopters arrived again with ammunition. Airborne medical evacuation crews pulled out the American wounded and one dead Afghan.

On the morning of their third day in the mountains, Broyles's soldiers discovered a building full of combat medical supplies and Taliban weapons. Broyles's platoon, dirty, filthy and tired, took cover in buildings that the Afghans used to keep their animals. Goat and chicken manure covered the floor. In the distance they could hear Air Force bombs leveling the building that held the weapons cache and medical supplies.

Pfc. Christian Warriner, 19, of Mills River, N.C., sat just outside the building on guard duty.

"After all the [expletive] I have survived I'll be pissed if I die today," he drawled, according to Spec. David Jones, the platoon medic.

"If you are dead you won't be pissed," Jones said. "You'll be [expletive] dead."

A few hours later, as many as 150 Taliban fighters struck back at the Americans. Warriner was shot in the forehead. One of his fellow soldiers stuffed the wound with gauze and called for help.

The fighting was too heavy to bring in medical evacuation helicopters, so Jones, the medic, pulled Warriner into the stone building and tried to stanch the bleeding from his head.

His fellow soldiers took turns holding Warriner's hand and talking to him about his wife, Shelby.

"You are not just here for us," his best friend in the platoon told him. "You have Shelby waiting at home for you. You promised her that you would be there for her."

After about 45 minutes, Warriner died. On the radio, Petrosky and Broyles heard reports that their sister platoon had suffered four more dead. In three days of fighting, six Americans and three Afghan soldiers had been killed.

Night fell and Petrosky helped carry Warriner's body to the hovering helicopters. "We'll take good care of your friend," one of the airmen from the medical evacuation crew yelled over the sounds of the rotors.

"Why the [expletive] are you saying that?" Petrosky recalled thinking. "He's dead."

Later that evening Petrosky huddled under a blanket with Pfc. Dustin Riedemann, who had stuffed gauze into Warriner's wound. Riedemann kept talking about the look in Warriner's eyes after he was shot. All Petrosky could think about was getting back to his outpost and his bunk, which he had decorated with pictures of his girlfriend and the Dallas Stars hockey team.

He was angry at the Afghan soldiers who had left most of the fighting on the mountain to the Americans, and he was furious at his commanders. No matter how many Taliban his platoon killed, it wasn't worth the life of any more of his friends. "Why are we still here?" he recalled saying. "We should have been off this mountain two days ago."

Broyles and Capt. Bo Reynolds, the senior American officer on the mountain, sat together in the building where Warriner had died.

Broyles, like Petrosky, was furious and doubted that his men could keep fighting. "I felt like battalion wasn't listening to us and didn't understand what was happening to our guys physically and mentally," Broyles said. "I felt ignored and neglected."

Ryan, the battalion commander, sensed the U.S. troops were on the verge of victory.

No helicopters were flying in fresh ammunition, food and water to the Taliban fighters. His intelligence officer was reporting that the enemy had fled to Gambir, about one mile north of Broyles's position. Beyond the tiny village there were only more mountains. The Taliban had no place to go.

"We have got to go to Gambir," Ryan told his brigade commander.

An elite force of Army Rangers, backed by fearsome Spectre gunships, flew into Gambir on Nov. 15. About 100 Afghan commandos and U.S. Special Forces soldiers were dispatched to clear another cluster of nearby villages.

Broyles's platoon continued to press on to Qatar Darrayea, which was empty. The soldiers took cover in a small house in which someone had drawn a picture of an AK-47 rifle firing at an American helicopter on the wall in crayon. They fell asleep to the sound of AC-130 aircraft searching for Taliban fighters in Gambir.

No one shot at Broyles's platoon for the next two days.

After he returned to Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle, his anger faded. The attack in the mountains had weakened the enemy, he concluded, and would make his platoon's last five months in the valley safer. "No one decided that the lives of six guys are worth the lives of 60 Taliban," he said.

'It callouses you'

A few days after the battle, Ryan called his wife to see how the families at Fort Campbell, Ky., were handling the deaths.

His wife's biggest concern was that her husband would have no one to talk to about the emotional toll of the losses. Ryan told her he was fine. "I've been doing this for nine years. People assume that it wears you down," he said of the battlefield deaths. "Really it callouses you."

Ryan had been selected to lead a battalion in the Army's Ranger Regiment after his Afghan tour, a sign that the Army considered him one of its best battlefield commanders. He was proud of his soldiers' resilience and the heavy losses they inflicted on the enemy. He also was quietly comfortable with his decision to press the fight in the mountains.

On Nov. 21, Ryan's troops gathered at Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle for a memorial service to honor the six dead from the battle. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. Apache helicopters circled over the outpost, scanning the ridgelines for the enemy.

A few minutes before the ceremony began, Campbell, the 101st Airborne Division commander and the commanding general for eastern Afghanistan, flew into the base. He motioned to Ryan and the other soldiers who were speaking at the service to form a tight knot around him.

Campbell pulled out two stacks of cards, each bearing the name, photo and hometown of a soldier killed under his command in Afghanistan. There were 88 from the 101st Airborne Division, each card numbered neatly in pen. Another stack of 44 cards memorialized soldiers who had attached to his unit.

"I carry these because I don't want to forget that there is a human cost," Campbell said.

Ryan watched as the general struggled to fit the cards into a small plastic bag. He couldn't get it to snap shut, and the two stacks spilled out of the top.

The memorial ceremony was dominated by the soldiers' remembrances of their friends. For these soldiers - most of whom are in their early 20s - victory in the valley is almost impossible to discern.

"A lot of people ask, what was it all for?" said Pfc. Dustin Wade, who had held Warriner in his arms as he died. "It's an easy answer. He did it for us. He did it for his platoon. He did it so all of us could eventually make it back home to our families and friends."

After the speeches the troops filed up to a battlefield memorial that consisted of their deceased friends' boots, helmets, rifles and dog tags. Large, framed photographs of the dead rested on easels.

One of the soldiers placed a snapshot taken at Warriner's wedding by his empty boots. Warriner had carried the picture in his wallet, and the sweat from his body had caused it to fray and tear.

The U.S. Army established its first foothold in the Pech Valley in 2006. In keeping with U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, the soldiers fought to keep the enemy back so that they could build roads, open schools and extend the reach of the Afghan government.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent to pave the main road through the Pech Valley. Close to 100 American soldiers were killed in the area. Ryan had lost 15.

Campbell's new strategy for eastern Afghanistan focused limited American resources on those areas where governance, police and economic development efforts have shown promise in recent years.

The Pech Valley wasn't one of those places. Even the Afghan government's commitment to the valley seemed shaky. The police were so poorly equipped that they begged the Americans for blankets. The Afghan army refused to patrol without the Americans.

Senior U.S. officials still have not reached a final decision to leave the valley, though a significant reduction in U.S. forces seems likely.

Ryan envisioned two possible outcomes following a U.S. pullout. In the best-case scenario, army and police forces would be able to hold off the recently bloodied insurgents, retain their bases and figure out how to meld into the insular and tribal valley society. In the worst-case scenario, the Afghan forces would collapse, he said.

"I came in looking for a counterinsurgency victory," Ryan said. "But here, there is no such thing."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company