As the Afghan military attempts to prove its own strength without American combat support, the Tangi Valley appeared to be the perfect mission — a chance to do what the U.S. military could not. In a valley that has claimed more American lives than any other swath of land in Afghanistan, The Post’s Kevin Sieff embedded with the Afghan army and witnessed one of the most ambitious missions in its short history. (Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)

When the first Afghan soldiers arrived at the mouth of the Tangi Valley last week, they saw a Taliban flag waving over a towering bluff. They had entered a sliver of their own country that did not belong to them, beginning one of the most daunting missions in the short history of the Afghan army.

They climbed to the rocky peak and plucked the enemy’s flag from the ground. That’s when the first makeshift bomb exploded, a booby trap that blew the men off their feet and threw a plume of dust and smoke and fire into the air.

It was an early confirmation of what Afghan and U.S. troops already knew: The Tangi is not just another insurgent haven. According to many intelligence estimates, it is the most dangerous vein in the country’s eastern hinterlands, home to Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. It is the site of the deadliest attack endured by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and one of the biggest staging grounds for assaults on Kabul, just 60 miles away.

But what was the Afghan army doing there? Its last base in the Tangi had been abandoned and overrun by insurgents. The American military had given up on securing the valley two years earlier. Neither American nor Afghan military leaders thought Afghan security forces had the capacity to set up permanent positions there, deeming the Taliban’s sanctuary all but unshakable, regardless of the operation’s outcome.

In over a decade of war, the United States failed to destroy a patchwork of Taliban havens, leaving an untested Afghan army to either let those sanctuaries fester or make bold — but perhaps inconsequential — efforts to disturb them. As the Afghan military attempts to prove its own strength without American combat support, the Tangi appeared to be the perfect mission — a chance to do what the U.S. military could not.

For the 1,027 Afghan soldiers who entered the Tangi in early April, the threats would be unrelenting. By the time they left after four long days, more than 40 makeshift bombs had detonated. The valley was peppered with Taliban madrassas, they would learn, and homes from which fighters emerged firing machine guns and rockets. Clinics once funded by Western aid agencies had been emblazoned with Taliban slogans. Former U.S. bases had been rigged with land mines.

“Terrorists own the Tangi,” said Col. Sami Badakshani, the executive officer of the Afghan army’s 4th Brigade. “The American military left. The Afghan government left. Because of that negligence, it is like this.”

American troops were surprised to learn of the Afghan army’s plans just one day before the operation was due to start. They rushed to get air support and surveillance drones into the area, sending about a dozen advisers to an outpost overlooking the valley. But no U.S. soldiers would enter the Tangi. (A Washington Post reporter and photographer were the only Americans there.) The days of large-scale joint combat operations are over in Afghanistan, particularly in places where the U.S. military questions the long-term value of dangerous missions.

This time, the Afghan army, fledgling but ambitious, would be on its own — the first non-Taliban combatants to enter the valley in over two years.

‘IED alley’

The soldiers regrouped after the first explosion, which left them with only minor injuries. They were chastised by one of their battalion commanders. The men should have known better, said Col. Mohammed Daowood. The Taliban often attach makeshift bombs to flags, in case the enemy should attempt to remove them.

“These guys — what are they doing?” Daowood said. “We cannot lose this battle before it starts.”

The troops continued pouring into the narrow valley, with some walking along the ridgeline and others taking the main road — a key throughway between Wardak and Logar provinces, paved by Americans but untraversed because of the Taliban’s dominance. In 2009, the U.S. military dubbed it “IED alley.” In 2011, the Taliban shot down an American Chinook in the Tangi, killing 38 people, including 22 Navy SEALs, in the deadliest attack of the war.

Immediately, the first units began digging for explosive devices. The troops had none of the U.S. military’s sophisticated equipment. Their jammers, which disable remote-controlled bombs, were mostly broken. The men used their eyes and pickaxes and shovels, uncovering massive homemade mines every 15 feet and lifting them from the ground with bare hands.

One by one, they carried the mines away from the road and buried them in the ground before detonating them, shattering the windows of Tangi homes. Any of the explosive devices would have torn through the soft-skin Ford Rangers with which the Afghan army is outfitted.

The first minutes of the mission were cluttered with such markers of an invisible enemy — first the roadside bombs and then sniper fire that echoed across the valley. The Tangi is narrow enough to act as a rocky amphitheater, and the sounds of the clash thundered between mountains until it was unclear where the bullets were coming from.

By the time the first lobby of gunfire stopped, two soldiers were shot, one in the neck and one in the leg. Just before he passed out, the man shot in the neck screamed, “I am not scared of the Taliban!”

But the commanders disagreed about whether the soldiers were in fact shot by insurgents. Daowood said it was friendly fire — the product of disorganization and soldiers that, from a distance, mistook their allies for enemies. Another battalion commander screamed that it was a Taliban sniper firing from a perch above them.

While the two argued, more gunfire rang out. A bomb exploded. The issue still unresolved, the commanders continued further into the valley, their men scattering toward villages that almost certainly harbored more enemy fighters. They had not heard about the information contained in an American intelligence report delivered the previous night: 200 insurgents had snuck into the village, ostensibly to defend their sanctuary.

Disparities between Afghan and U.S. military doctrine could be seen everywhere. Daowood walked next to a man with a ski mask and oversize sunglasses covering his face. The man said he was a former Talib from the Tangi who accepted money from Daowood to work as an informant. No one in the unit had ever seen him before. Some worried he was a double agent.

He pointed to makeshift bombs that no one else saw, with wires that snaked toward distant trees so insurgents could trigger the devices without being seen.

When asked how he found them, he pulled down his bandanna and smiled. “I’m a professional,” he said.

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.

“We had to watch a man die for no reason,” said Gen. Abdul Raziq, the 4th Brigade commander.

As Mustafa was wheeled away, the soldiers gathered about 20 suspected insurgents. The soldiers punched them on the back and slapped them in the face. The two main suspects were blindfolded and handcuffed using pieces of a scarf.

“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.