The beauty of the place belies its deadliness. We’re flying in a Black Hawk helicopter up the main river valley of Konar Province in eastern Afghanistan. To our right, looking east, lie the jagged, snow-drenched peaks that mark the Pakistan border. Still in view are the mountains around Tora Bora, from where Osama Bin Laden is believed to have escaped at the end of 2001. Even to the naked eye, the number of tracks and trails leading up to and into the mountainous terrain are too numerous to count.
In the foothills are scores of tiny villages, patches of green and flat-roofed mud homes, clinging to the hillsides, in seeming isolation except for foot or donkey paths. “It’s a tough, tough people who eke out a living in a land of this nature,” says the man sitting next to me in the chopper, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser.
Schloesser is the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force-101, currently in charge of what’s known as “Regional Command East.” It’s the most violent of the five sectors into which the U.N.-mandated coalition divided Afghanistan — a 350-by-250-mile triangle, with its hypotenuse the porous Pakistan border. And it’s the only one under the command of the Americans.
Tall, lean, media-savvy, and a veteran of the Iraq war, Schloesser met us first in his office in a reconverted airplane hanger at Bagram Air Field to give us a tour d’horizon of his command. Standing at a huge map-stand in his office, he points to two provinces just south and west of Kabul — Wardak and Logar — where Taliban have, in the last 18 months, made such extraordinary gains that they’re now a no-go zone for civilian foreigners.
The vital Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, which runs through Logar, is now off-limits for foreign NGOs, journalists or businessmen, and for many Afghans as well. “The insurgents surprised us,” he concedes. “They cut the bridges on the highway and blew up culverts.” The U.S. has put up temporary bridges around the destroyed ones. After a fresh infusion of U.S. troops in February (from 300 to 3,000 in Wardak and Logar, an area the size of Maryland), the attacks are down. But the Taliban had sent a politically damaging message — that they, not the central government, are in control. Says Schloesser ruefully, “The perception became, Kabul was cut off from Kandahar.”
But today we’ll be flying east to Jalalabad and then north to Konar Province — to three small outposts of U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the Pech River Valley, the Korengal Valley and the Chowkay, “the three most violent of all the 174 districts in RC-East,” Schloesser said. “This is the place that shows all the tensions in trying to fight a counter-insurgency in a land like Afghanistan. It’s not just tribal in nature — it’s tribes, families, clans, some overlapping, some bitter enemies, even different languages, a very complicated picture.” His other major challenge is that Konar adjoins two semi-lawless, insurgent-rich parts of Pakistan — the Northwest Frontier Province and the tribal areas.
Then we’re off on our “battlefield circulation” in two eight-passenger Black Hawk helicopters, with two pilots, a crew chief and two machine gunners up front in each.
First, we head south and east over the fertile Nangahar Valley, home to some 3.5 million people, where Schloesser believes the Americans has been successful in basic counter-insurgency strategy — to separate the population from the insurgents by aggressively going after the latter, while helping bring construction and development to the former.
“The security situation in most of Eastern Afghanistan has had an increase in violence,” Schloesser says, but this area has actually improved over three years. Insurgents are now resorting to IEDs or suicide bombs, “and it’s pretty darn infrequent.”
Just then Schloesser gets a private communication on his headset. The Restropo outpost, the most remote of our destinations that day, was just attacked by small arms fire, he tells us. We may have to scrub that stop.
We veer left, north up the Konar River. Another report comes in on Schloesser’s headset: there have been two attacks from small arms fire in the Korengal Valley, site of another one of our destination outposts.
But in the landscape below, he points to progress. Part of Schloesser’s mission is to disrupt the regular foot and vehicle traffic between the insurgent areas of Pakistan and this eastern border. It’s difficult, since “there are 200 major passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan in RC-East alone, and hundreds of smaller footpaths.” What he’s doing in the Konar Valley shows how he’s going about it.
On the west side of the river, there used to be just one rutted road from Jalalabad north to Asadabad some 50 miles away. It took 14 hours for farmers to get anything to market between the two. The Afghans east of the river had more contact with the insurgent-friendly region of Pakistan next door than they did with their Afghan brothers west of the river. To remedy that, the U.S. fully paved the roads on both sides of the river, and is constructing six concrete bridges across it. The roads and bridges are now knitting the Afghan communities together commercially — or at least that’s the idea. And Schloesser says the U.S. Army hired Afghans, not U.S. contractors, to build the roads and bridges and give local men employment.
Is there any place in the world where the U.S. military is doing major building like this, not just reconstruction, but new construction that may fundamentally alter the way people live? Schloesser pauses. “No. But we can’t win the security battle without improving the life of the people.”
Another radio report comes in: Camp Joyce just ahead — home to a full U.S. battalion — has just been attacked. “It’s a 107, sir,” his communications specialist says. “That’s a small rocket, a 107 mm rocket,” Schloesser explains. “Generally they’ll set up on these ridge lines and they’ll fire it down inside there.”
These attacks are usually ineffectual, he says, but he understands what’s going on. “We’re fairly new up here, and they’re still trying to figure us out. They’re attacking to see how we react. … Also, the winter was pretty mild. That allows the insurgents to come across earlier and to build up their caches a little bit earlier as well.” But the beefed-up U.S. troop presence is frustrating them, he believes. “Before, we didn’t have enough troops to be on that side of the river. And so now that we do … the insurgents that do come through here are a little pissed off, to be quite frank.”
As we turn northwest up the Pech River Valley, two Apache gunships join up to escort us. We’re moving deep into insurgent territory. “This is a very tough area,” he says. “We just lost nine soldiers last July.” They died in a bold Taliban-and-insurgent assault on a remote outpost — the worst against Americans in Afghanistan in three years. Another 15 NATO soldiers and four Afghan soldiers were wounded.
So who’s the enemy? It’s not a monolithic insurgency here, Schloesser says, but a deadly melange of Taliban, anti-government insurgents, local warlords, terrorists and criminal elements, including some who just don’t want anyone — Western or Afghan — interfering with what has been a sweet illegal timbering operation for years. And the villagers up here, Schloesser says, are suspicious of any outsiders, period.
We land in a hail of dust on the dirt helicopter pad at Camp Blessing, a fortified mountain FOB, or Forward Operating Base, where one company of U.S. soldiers and one Afghan National Army unit live. As we trudge up the hill to the small command building, we spot some Afghan laborers as well. Many of them shield their faces from our camera. The camp structures are a dust-covered combination of stone, mud walls and so-called Hesco barriers, gigantic wire cylinders filled with absorbent liners and mud, cheap to build and tailor-made to absorb bullets and blasts. Yet in the newly surfaced walkway and terrace at the modest headquarters building a few tiny trees have been planted.
The battalion commander is proud of the work they’re doing in local villages, spreading around some $1.7 million worth of projects like micro-hydro wells. But their main work is still fighting insurgents — often drawing them out with foot patrols that attract attack. Those forays are dangerous. As Schloesser reaches the top of the hill, he finds seven young soldiers standing at attention on the small stone terrace. Schloesser pins an Army Commendation Medal with Valor on 19-year-old Pfc. Kevin Mulholland of New Jersey, for bravery under fire when his small humvee convoy was attacked on a mission to re-supply Viper company at the more distant Korengal Valley outpost. Schloesser bestows the award on Mulholland with as much ceremony and personal attention as if they’re on a parade ground at West Point.
“What’s it like living and operating out here?” I asked Pfc. Mulholland afterwards, fully expecting a show of tough-guy soldier bravado. “It’s very humbling,” he said. Humbling? How so? “It shows you what you have back in the States, what we take for granted every day. These people, they don’t even have hot showers … they have to fight for survival every day. If they don’t grow their crops, they probably won’t make it to the next year.” It was humbling to hear such sensitivity from this young soldier. Yet Mulholland readily confessed to being frustrated by the suspicious reception, and worse, that he gets from the locals. “There’s no helping ’em once they get that belief in their head, that we’re no good. … You have little kids screaming at you, cursing at you going down the road. It’s a little hard to restrain yourself and not do it back, but you can’t. … If you show ’em that the Americans are good, maybe they won’t go over to the bad side. ”
Then we’re off again, the giant Black Hawks lifting us up a narrow tributary valley to the Korengal Outpost. “We’re trying to help them, but we’re not getting much cooperation up here,” Schloesser says. Even U.S. efforts to put in a road have met fierce resistance from the locals. The outpost feels pasted to the hillside, and it makes Camp Blessing look luxurious. Yet it’s home to some 150 men of Viper Company of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade. The executive officer in charge, Lt. John Rodriguez, says they’re also trying to bring development to the local villages, but most of his attention is spent trying to root out insurgent fighters to deny them safe haven in this valley.
Viper’s position looks exposed, and it is. The only buffer comes from numerous tiny observation posts at higher spots around them, manned by Afghan National Army troops under the mentoring of a three-man unit of U.S. Marine “embedded tactical trainers.” We clamber up to one of these outposts about 250 meters away to find three Afghan soldiers. They report they’d taken fire just 20 minutes earlier.
All in all, the 26th Infantry has lost eight soldiers in the Korengal Valley since last June. The insurgents are brutal, a young lieutenant tells us. “One of the elders who came to a shura with our commander was killed.” A disputed number of Afghan civilians have died in the fighting as well.
On the chopper ride back to Bagram, Schloesser reviews the attack reports for the day throughout RC-East. How good are the insurgents? How well-trained, armed and commanded? “The vast majority of these attacks — throughout my command — are not coordinated,” he says. “But in Korengal, I think there is coordination. And that gets my attention.” He cites the deadly attack last July that killed nine. “They were clearly well-trained. They knew how to put together a complex attack. They knew to maintain radio silence during the operation.” Schloesser is convinced they were trained in Pakistan or Kashmir.
We ask Schloesser about something his public affairs officer, Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, had said earlier — that he’s constantly pondering if the American presence is actually generating the insurgent activity. “Are we out here as a self-licking ice-cream cone?” she said. “Is it violent because the population’s so xenophobic that we’re just a burr under their saddle?” Schloesser says he does think about that, and clearly the U.S. presence does in itself trigger insurgent hostility. But his intelligence has concluded that there are committed anti-government, pro-Taliban insurgents enjoying safe haven in these hills. And they must be rooted out.
He keeps an open mind, he says. In one small valley, where he was persuaded there were no insurgents, “we built the road for them, and then closed our outpost and left.” But in most of these other rural redoubts, the peril to Afghan’s central government — and thus the U.S. — is real and enduring. And that, he says, “means we could be here a very long time.”