by DAVID AXE
April 23, Zari district, southern Afghanistan. The U.S. Army’s 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 3-41 Infantry — part of the Texas-based 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division — is setting up a patrol base for a two-day mission when a call comes over the radio.
An Afghan army unit deployed to Zari district alongside Bravo Company has received a tip from a local resident. Fizal Mohammad, a high-ranking Taliban commander in the district, is having lunch with his brother in a farming village not far from 1st Platoon’s patrol base. The Afghan army is organizing a raid to capture or kill Mohammad. First Platoon is the closest American unit.
“We’re going,” says 1st Lt. Matt Blakemore, the platoon commander. He orders his roughly 20 soldiers to pack up their Stryker armored vehicles. Fifteen minutes from the word “go,” 1st Platoon is on the road.
But the quick turnaround belies the platoon’s mobility problems at this late stage of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — problems that will have serious consequences in the hunt for Mohammad. Overburdened with protective gear and other hardware, boxed in by the threat of buried Taliban bombs, 1st Platoon finds it can move at just a fraction of the pace of its Afghan comrades — and too slowly to intercept Mohammad.
Twelve years into the American phase of the Afghanistan war, it’s popular among foreign analysts to deride the Afghan army’s capabilities compared to those of U.S. forces, referring to the Afghans’ methods as “Afghan good-enough.”
But in many ways the Afghans hold an advantage over the Americans. “I wish we had their agility,” says Capt. Dennis Halleran, Bravo Company commander. With less hardware and a greater willingness to accept risk — and casualties — the Afghans can move faster.
The Afghans’ best attributes are on full display as Blakemore’s 1st Platoon links up with an Afghan army platoon led by Capt. Timur Sha. A U.S. Kiowa scout helicopter lands next to the Strykers so Blakemore can consult with the two-man crew. The Kiowa takes off again and circles the village, keeping tabs on anyone coming and going.
After a hasty consultation between Blakemore and Sha, the combined U.S.-Afghan force marches into the village, hoping to catch Mohammad at his brother’s house. It’s clearly a race: with the Kiowa roaring overhead, Mohammad cannot but know he’s been found out. Betraying their own presence is the price the Americans pay for the helicopter-based surveillance.
The Americans move slowly, using “minehound” scanners to carefully search for the buried bombs that are among the biggest killers of coalition troops. The Afghan soldiers sprint ahead, exposed to any bombs but unafraid. U.S. squad leader Sgt. Mason Mullins yells to them to slow down. “We don’t move that fast!”
Time and again this happens: the Afghans outpace the Americans and the Americans must reel them back in. The pace of the raid slows even further when the combined patrol rounds up several Afghan villagers and must enroll them in a biometric database using wireless devices that take 20 minutes to boot up.
By the time they surround Mohammad’s brother’s compound, the Taliban commander and his host are long gone — apparently having fled on a motorbike. The Kiowa possibly spots them but, lacking firm identification of the suspects, cannot intervene.
“I hate minehounds,” Mullins growls, unfairly blaming technology — rather than the U.S. Army’s own unwieldy tactics compared to the Afghans — for his platoon’s failure to capture Mohammad.