COMBAT OUTPOST MIZAN, Afghanistan — This combat outpost is a village in itself, with a platoon each of American soldiers, Afghan soldiers and Afghan police nestled in a verdant valley surrounded by high peaks, barren and forbidding.
The American unit at Mizan — 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2/2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment — has been here for four months and have about eight to go before they head back to their base in Germany.
It’s easy to tell who is the incoming platoon leader and who is the outgoing — at breakfast 2nd Lt. Dave Anderson is wearing a clean, complete uniform, while 1st Lt. Troy Peterson, who has been with 3rd Platoon for a year, is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a cap, as most of the men are.
Peterson carries himself with the confident swagger of a man who is responsible for a difficult mission and the lives of 30 men. Anderson looks younger and weighs less than almost all of the soldiers under his command. The Fox Company commander, Capt. Charles Wall, is along but makes it clear that it is the lieutenants’ mission.
The mission begins
At 3 a.m. on a pitch-dark night, Anderson and Peterson led nearly everyone at Mizan over “Route Goat” — a relentlessly steep gravel slide leading to the high pass looming over the outpost to the south.
In the quiet darkness, soldiers carrying radios, machine guns, grenades, trauma bags, belts of grenades, gallons of water, body armor and tremendous amounts of ammunition scramble up the mountain grunting, cursing, sliding on the gravel and crashing through low brambles that stab through pants and boots.
Only a goat can use this route regularly, hence the name.
Like troops virtually everywhere in Afghanistan, soldiers in the Mizan Valley face an uphill battle, sometimes literally, to expand their “sphere of influence,” a central goal of the U.S.-led coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy, which prioritizes the building of relationships and the strengthening of local governments.
Some of the soldiers here think it is too soon for such a strategy to work in Afghanistan — that troops need to focus all their efforts on security now. It’s an opinion that will be made all the more cogent as the day’s mission wears on.
And not unlike the Americans, Afghans living in and around Mizan show an interest in establishing local governance but for them their fear of the Taliban still comes first.
All of Anderson and Peterson’s troops are at the top of the pass just as the sun rises, revealing tiny homes far below, deep in the crooks of the mountains, and children waking up in unimaginable isolation. Out across a flat desert plain is a swath of vegetation following a seasonal stream, with mud walled compounds amid the trees — this village is their destination. Just beyond the village stands another towering mountain range.
The previous tenants of Mizan, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, ventured over this mountain, got into a wild firefight and were pinned down for 10 hours. That patrol consisted of only 20 American soldiers. There is three times that many on the ground this time.
The Afghan soldiers, who carry far less equipment than the Americans, are first across the plain and shots immediately echo off the mountains all around us. The Afghan troops have spotted two men fleeing up the far slopes and are shooting first and asking questions later. It appears the men get away but no one will be sure until all hell breaks lose later in the afternoon.
When the Americans arrive in the village, the Afghan National Army commander has all the local men sit together to his left. One by one, he calls men to come speak to him. His line of questioning is simple and his methods direct — each village man is slapped and shaken, and asked if they are a jihadi. They are then sent to sit on the ground to the commander’s right.
As the Americans became aware of the Afghan commander’s system of interrogation, Wall, an imposing and austere Army Ranger, pulled Anderson aside and instructed him to get control of the situation.
“You’re undermining everything we’re trying to do here,” Anderson said to the veteran Afghan fighter, who was easily 20 years his senior. “We can’t tell them to resist against the Taliban if we’re treating them just as badly.”
The grim Afghan army commander stared incredulously at Anderson for a moment, and replied through an interpreter, “You don’t understand. Americans haven’t been here in five months. If they don’t fear us, they won’t respect us.”
Anderson gathered the village men up again and started in on his well-honed counterinsurgency speech — making the argument that the Taliban are preventing hard-working farmers like themselves from enjoying economic development and physical security.
And the young lieutenant told the villagers that there is a free clinic at Mizan if they could make the trek — none of them knew about it.
With 40 curious Afghan farmers crowded around him at the edge of a tiny agrarian village, without a scrap of metal or a tire track to be seen, Anderson appeared as though he was an explorer from the distant future who'd stepped out of a time machine in the 14th century.
Into Taliban country
The group of heavily armed time-travelers then headed west along the creek bed to the next settlement, which was far larger than anything you’d expect out in Zabul Province’s high desert. At the eastern edge of town, a large spring-fed pool alive with carp, green frogs, freshwater crabs and minnows trickled into a stream feeding lush pomegranate orchards — the heart of Potay Kalay’s economy, such as it is. The spring is certainly the reason that the village is a reputed bed-down site for Taliban fighters in the mountains.
Potay Kalay is one mountain range away from the Arghandab River Valley, which is described by U.S. military leaders as a highway for Taliban fighters moving from the Hindu Kush mountains in the heart of Afghanistan, through restive Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and into Pakistan’s tribal regions. A massive operation to clear the Arghandab Valley is now underway.
Anderson again met with a large group of men in the village, and this time he got to them before the Afghan commander had a chance to slap them around. Anderson was able to drum up support for a shura council that would give the provincial government an ability to interface with local leaders at scheduled meetings without having to visit each village individually, as the soldiers must presently do.
As the troops exited the village, children lined Potay Kalay’s main street to watch the soldiers pass — many of them had surely never seen a Caucasian man before. At this point, everyone had been walking for 10 hours and many of the soldiers did not raise their heads to look at the children huddled quietly beneath low archways. The labored footfalls of 80 feet marching over earth packed hard by a thousand years of labored footfalls were the only sound.
Earlier that morning on the way up the mountain, the troops had come across a pile of mortar shrapnel, two water bottles and some wire — possibly the makings of a roadside bomb. It was too dark then to tell exactly what it was through night-vision goggles, so now the officers, Wall, Peterson and Anderson set off with some of their men, back to the mountain, to investigate the scrap heap more thoroughly.
The rest of the team, led by Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Moreno, headed back to the base through a low pass to the west — it would take time, but at least there was no mountain between them and Mizan. After five kilometers of generally downhill trudging, Wall radioed Moreno to tell him that they had intercepted a transmission that a Taliban leader was hiding in the mosque at Potay Kalay, and that Wall wanted Moreno’s exhausted men to run back up to the village to arrest the him.
“This is a classic mujahedeen ambush tactic, straight out of their playbook against the Russians,” said Sgt. Duncan Burry, a burly squad leader who wears a patch on his assault pack that says Face Shoot The Fuckers. “Baited fucking ambush.”
Everyone agreed that it was a likely ambush, but as one replied, “The captain’s got his dick deep in this one — we have to do it.”
The soldiers left a dozen behind in a tight perimeter while the rest charged back up the hill. As they approached the mosque, an RPG exploded into a wall in front of them and AK-47 fire raked the ground they stood upon. At the same time, Peterson, Anderson, Wall and their men, who were moving back toward the mountain, came under withering machine gun fire and had to dash into an orchard while returning fire.
The two men who fled the troops’ advance that morning had returned with at least 10 others, carrying PKC machine guns and AK-47s. In response to the attack on the officers, two 120mm mortar rounds fired from Mizan crashed into Potay Kalay, nearly hitting Moreno’s men.
In Potay Kalay, Taliban fighters fired RPGs and AK-47s from the mosque while others lobbed RPG rounds from over the surrounding high-walled compounds. As the troops dashed from street to street, trying to push the Taliban back, two American F/A-18 fighter jets screamed through Potay Kalay at unbelievable speed, seemingly inches from the rooftops and mere feet from approaching Apache attack helicopters.
Although the Apaches and F/A-18s didn’t fire on the village, the troops stopped taking fire, and exited the village to the east. To the west of Potay Kalay, the soldiers were also through the worst of it, also without taking casualties, though they killed several Taliban fighters at close range. As they made for the mountains, they heard Taliban on their radios claiming they’d killed seven Americans.
On the way back to Mizan, Moreno’s men were giddy after what for many of them was their first real firefight. Even though they ultimately decided they shouldn’t have gone into such an obvious ambush, young privates who had proven themselves in the ultimate test of soldiering were positively beaming. A soldier who’d been berated during the fight had a faraway look, like he was making up a story for his friends back home about his gallantry in action.
Back at Mizan, body armor and rucksacks crashed to the ground, boots came flying off, and everyone poured into the chow hut to eat chicken fried steak and continue recounting their glory in battle. The other team was still on the mountain, in the dark, with an hour to go. Moreno waited by the gate for them to come in.
The last one in, Sgt. Sean Zemke, dropped his gear in the operations center, and sighed, “Well, I killed a man.”