ARGHANDAB VALLEY, Afghanistan — The U.S. Army’s most urgent alert was ringing across the Arghandab Valley, from the 82nd Airborne’s Battalion Command to the smallest combat outpost: soldier missing in action.
The alert went off after a patrol was ambushed by Taliban soldiers operating in this lush and strategically crucial valley on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city and the crucible of Taliban influence.
In the heat of the moment, it was unclear whether the soldier had been killed or disappeared.
“The last thing we want is having a soldier kidnapped to an enemy that doesn’t take prisoners and beheads its enemies on TV,” said Maj. William Black, who monitored the unfolding drama from a darkened situation room hung with Afghan, Canadian and U.S. flags and video feeds coming in live from drones hanging over the battlespace.
A few miles from the incident, 1st Lt. Jordan Ritenour was having a hard time convincing his Afghan National Army colleagues to join him on the search mission. As part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, Ritenour and his fellow soldiers live with the same Afghan soldiers they mentor in bases close to Taliban-supporting villages.
By the time five Afghan soldiers were corralled and the company headed out, precious time had been lost. The soldiers moved across the lanes of the mud-walled village of Kuhak before plunging into fields.
The Taliban have prepared for their annual spring offensive by sowing bombs and booby-traps around the valley’s country lanes. Invisible explosives stud walls, ditches and even trees. The soldiers go off-road, betting that the Taliban would not alienate local farmers by booby-trapping their fields. They scramble over orchard walls and wade through irrigation canals.
Reaching the far shore of the Arghandab River, the soldiers assumed covering positions along one of its banks, across from a complex of mud-walled compounds. Half a dozen helicopters buzzed overhead, their pilots straining to locate the missing man.
Then, news came through on the radio that pieces of an M-4 rifle and a helmet had been found. It became clear that the soldier had died in a bomb blast so strong that there was no way he could have survived. Amid trails of smoke, a helicopter landed to retrieve parts of the wreckage from the IED.
The radio sputtered to life again, relaying that an informer had surfaced, claiming that the missing soldier was alive and being held by the Taliban in Kuhak, the same village where the soldiers had come from. With the soldier now confirmed dead, the tip-off appeared suspicious.
“If they know that one of our guys is missing that means that they want us to walk through Kuhak,” said Joshua Victorin, a soldier on his fifth deployment. “It could be an ambush, it could be an IED.”
Reinforcements were called in, in the form of Green Berets and surrogate local militias.
Gunfire reverberated around the valley, chattering above the evening prayer and what sounded like children screaming. Two additional IEDs were found and detonated on the site of the ambush, one of them a stunning 14 blocks of C-4 married into one deadly missive.
The helicopters dropped chaff, flare-like precautionary bursts that divert incoming missiles, and returned to base. Darkness fell. As the clatter of rotors faded away, the river’s warbling reasserted itself.
The company moved silently through waist-high fields to a soundtrack of dogs barking hoarsely from within compounds. A ghostly moon rose from behind a mountain range, shedding silver light on faces illuminated only by the green pinprick of night-vision goggles. Light pollution from Kandahar, a few miles away, bled sickly into the black night.