25 April 2010
The counteroffensive has begun. More accurately, it might be called a counter-counteroffensive. Close to a decade ago, we beat the Taliban and al Qaeda here. The Taliban regrew and waged an increasingly successful counteroffensive. And so our ninth year at war is the year of our counter-counteroffensive.
The most remarkable feature of our counter-counteroffensive likely will be the Battle for Kandahar, or BfK. Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and Kandahar City is the provincial capital. The Taliban is succesfully wresting Kandahar back into their control. The BfK is likely our last effort to halt and reverse Taliban influence from spreading. The winner in the BfK will be set to eventually take most or all of the chips off the table, and so BfK is crucial to the outcome of the war.
Much of the BfK will take place not in Kandahar, or even Afghanistan, but in the mediasphere, and likey will affect U.S. elections this year. The implications are vast.
This is a political war on nearly every level. Though this will almost certainly be our most deadly year so far, violence is often a minor aspect of the struggle, while in some places combat is—by far—the most prevalent feature. Insofar as combat, our plans do not include serious fighting within Kandahar City, though soon after publication of this dispatch fighting will erupt in nearby areas. BfK is more of a process for both sides than a set battle. The Taliban are succeeding in their process to take Kandahar, and we wish to reverse that process.
(Note: The mission described in this dispatch occurred before General McChrystal’s crew censored my embed.)
The mission for the next couple days was to visit four villages that rarely see Coalition, and never see Afghan government unless villagers travel to the Shah Wali Kot (SWK) District Center or to Kandahar City.
“Route Bear” starts at Highway 1, passes by Arghandab River Valley, by FOB Frontenac, by the district center (where this mostly was written) and on up to Tarin Kot in Urozgan Province. The Aussies, Dutch, U.S. and others use the route for convoys. Most of the areas out here are the wild unknowns where no, or almost no, Coalition or Afghan government ever goes. We know little about the villages. Route Bear and other roads follow the paths of least resistance while Afghans follow the water. If you see green down below, it’s safe to bet that Afghans live there. And so the main routes such as Bear—of which there are few—often are far away from the nearest villages, but within easy distance when Taliban decide to strike. Even if there were no bombs, our heavy armor cannot get to most villages in Afghanistan, but the Taliban can scoot all over on their motorbikes and light vehicles.
The villages of Shah Tut and Padah, in the Baghtu Valley, are mostly unknown to us. Some Dutch, however, should remember it well because they have been attacked where Route Bear crosses the Baghtu Valley. This war has been going on for so long that it’s hard to know what’s happened here.
Charlie Company drove out under cover of morning darkness off Route Bear into the hills a few kilometers from the villages of Shah Tut and Padah. As the Strykers approached a dangerous chokepoint, far from the villages, the soldiers fired grenades from the Mark 19 (automatic grenade launcher) and some machine gun bursts at potential ambush spots. It is important to note that there were no civilians or villages in this area but anyone hiding in ambush would likely fire back or flee. This tactic is sometimes called “recon by fire” and can be very effective.
The soldiers drove to a prearranged area, dropped ramps on the Strykers and began the walk toward the villages. A lizard and a grasshooper were the only creatures to be seen. The desolate area is a work of natural art.
First we walked to Shah Tut, situated at about 4,500ft above sea level. Afghan National Police brought two pickups partially loaded with blankets for the villagers and extra supplies for us to spend the night in the desert, or possibly in an Afghan compound if the commander could rent one for a night. The soldiers stayed off the roads in case of bombs, but closer to the village the terrain forced the ANP back onto the roads. The two police walking in front are looking for bombs.
Many Afghan villages share names. Variant spellings, variant names and same-names are challenging. In the United States, if someone says they are from Ellijay, Georgia, the location can be quickly narrowed and pinpointed despite that the United States has a population probably ten times greater while geographically dwarfing Afghanistan. But here, even in the limited “Central Area” of “Regional Command South” comprising part of southern Afghanistan, there are five listed villages called “Padah” or “Padeh” and there are 15 villages named Shin Ghar. Villages often are named after terrain features. A Pashtun man explained “padah” is the word for the feature we call a “saddle,” while shin ghar means “blue mountain,” or maybe “green mountain,” depending on who you ask.
Just a couple minutes of scanning the atlas index (RC-South, Central Area, Afghanistan Atlas, produced by the British MoD) reveals replicate names from A to Z. The atlas covers but a small portion of the country that might approximate north Georgia. Imagine if there were seven villages named Ellijay, three named Elejey, and two named Elijeya, just in North Georgia, not to mention the rest of the United States.
There are roughly 4,000 named population centers in the the Central Area of RC-South and, for a guess, there might be only 3,200 different names.
Shah Tut means “mulberry” and Shah tut trees are said to live for centuries, though the Taliban sometimes cut down the shah tut trees of uncooperative villages. During imperial days the British made beer and wine from the fruits, and those fruits are sold in markets today. It’s possible that some of the still living trees helped make beer for the British last century.
Having avoided any bombs or ambushes, Afghan National Police and soldiers from Charlie Company 1-17th Infantry crested a saddle and saw the Baghtu Valley and the village of Shah Tut. Soldiers took security position and the governor of Shah Wali Kot District hollered down below asking that village men assemble. ANP repeated the calls on a megaphone.
From a vantage point on a nearby hill, Charlie Company soldiers could see villagers avoiding certain paths. Villagers would come to a certain spot, hop over a wall and walk through the field, then get back on the path. The soldiers on the hill radioed to soldiers who were already in Shah Tut to stay off the paths even inside the village.