by DAVID AXE
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JOYCE, Afghanistan — The U.S. Army’s maps of Kunar province are marked with a line the color of blood. Inside the red border, the Army and other NATO forces can operate freely. Outside the line, patrols must be bigger. And they require air escort. “Indian country,” one soldier calls these zones.
In mountainous eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, many valleys lie beyond the red line. Each is its own little country, with unique customs and tribal laws, all but sealed off from surrounding communities by sharp peaks. “The mountains jut out … they force people to be separate from their neighbors,” said Tech Sergeant Phoebus Lazaridis, an Air Force forward air controller assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, deployed to a series of outposts dotting the main Kunar Valley.
The battalion’s Task Force Rock is trying to erase the red line and draw isolated valleys into broader Afghan society in order to diminish the power of extremist groups. The “enemy” in Kunar includes timber and gem smugglers, the terror group Hizbul Islam, foreign fighters associated with the Taliban and what Task Force Rock Major Bill Hampton characterizes as “isolationists.” These xenophobic farmers grow poppies, a high-profit crop that forms the basis of heroin. The Taliban smuggles the processed heroin to fund its operations.
A task force patrol that ventured across the red line into the Chowkay Valley on March 26th encountered several of these elements all at the same time, underscoring the obstacles NATO faces in extending its — and the Afghan government’s — influence into the most remote parts of the country.
“We were going to pop your cherry.”
In stark contrast to the rest of Afghanistan, the fighters in the extreme east have not yet embraced the Improvised Explosive Device as their main weapon. They use their guns and Rocket Propelled Grenades, preferring to get close and engage NATO. Task Force Rock has lost two soldiers since deploying several months ago: both died of gunshot wounds.
The virtual absence of IEDs means the task force can still use its up-armored Humvees instead of the heavier, better-protected Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected trucks. The Humvees handle Kunar’s steep slopes and narrow roads better than the MRAPs. We rolled out from Rock’s main base in late morning, in a convoy mixing MRAPs, Humvees, turreted Armored Security Vehicles and Afghan army pickup trucks.
“Ever been in a firefight?” Sergeant Matt Witt asked as I climbed into his Humvee. Yes, I said. “Too bad,” Witt replied. “We were going to pop your cherry.”
A pair of Army OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters met us as we entered the Chowkay. The choppers, armed with guns and white-phosphorous rockets, flew just a few dozen feet overhead. As the convoy climbed higher along one side of the valley, at times the helicopters actually flew below us. Staff Sergeant Kevin Rosner, an Air Force Joint Terminal Air Controller, and his apprentice Airman First Class William Chandler rode along to coordinate air strikes, in the event that the Kiowas were overwhelmed.
The Chowkay’s fields of winter wheat and poppies were all but empty of workers. “Not good,” said Specialist Geoff Pearman, Witt’s driver. Locals flee when they expect a firefight.
Vehicles lurched to a stop. Ramps dropped and door swung open. Soldiers leaped out. Officers pointed out fields of fire for the machine-gunners. A team dug a pit and assembled their 60-millimeter mortar. A radioman pointed a satellite dish towards the sky. Rosner cussed as he struggled to get a good radio signal; he’d need it to talk to the pilots if fast-jet air support became necessary.
First thing: the task force’s agricultural team and their interpreters descended the slope, winding between boulders and the mud walls of compounds. They had a meeting with some of the Chowkay’s elders. Other elders had refused to travel so deep into their own deadly valley. They waited near the mouth of the Chowkay.
It wasn’t long before the intelligence filtered down. Three teams of armed men were moving into position on the surrounding mountain peaks. In the valley below, the Americans hunkered among trees and rocks. Rosner asked his headquarters to prioritize the patrol for the ministrations of some nearby F-15E Strike Eagles. If the enemy fighters opened fire, Rosner would direct the F-15s to attack.
The fighters asked their commander for permission to attack. The commander said no. No one knew why. But it certainly saved the fighters from the F-15s that were just minutes away.
A whoosh and a sharp crack. The Kiowas flew a circuit of the valley, firing rockets at known fighting positions where the enemy might concentrate. A billowing pillar of white smoke marked each explosion.
The fighters asked again for permission to shoot. Again, their boss said no.
The agricultural team climbed back up the slope. We were done here. “Let’s go,” Witt said. We sprinted back to our Humvee as soldiers buttoned up in their vehicles all around us. The Kiowas buzzed overhead, firing their guns.
Captain Joe Snowden had a long list of things he wanted to discuss with the remaining elders at the mouth of the valley. Inside a ring of machine-gunners, with the task force’s artillery laid onto surrounding coordinates, Snowden asked the elders what it would take for the valley to stop growing poppies and start working with the government.
The elders laughed. Snowden’s expression did not betray his frustration. “What if we offered you an alternative?”
Shrugs. We told the farmers to switch crops, an elder said. And they refused.
What about the foreign fighters in the valley? Snowden asked. “Tell them not to come into your villages.”
More laughter. “We told them 20 times,” one elder said. “But they have guns.”