By Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press ServiceMarch 10, 2009
FORWARD OPERATING BASE AIRBORNE, Afghanistan, March 9, 2009 - Flexing for the first time the massive military muscle now deployed to this area, coalition forces cleared one of its most troubled insurgent hotspots, sending a forceful message to insurgent fighters here that the coalition will go wherever, whenever it wants.
The three-day operation wrapped up yesterday and took hundreds of troops deep into the Tangi, a valley of narrow roads and steep cliffs that runs along the Logar River through the southeastern part of Wardak province opening into Logar province.
The area has seen few coalition forces for the past eight months after a small U.S. military team was brutally attacked and four were killed there last summer.
Shortly after the first few Soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team arrived here in February, they sent a little larger than a platoon-sized team into the valley. The troops were blasted by roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire. Remarkably, no one on the patrol was killed.
But, only days afterward, two local boys who had talked with coalition leadership during the mission were dragged from their homes and killed. It was a strong-arm attempt to strike fear into the local population, officials said, because the insurgents knew that with the growing U.S presence here, the coalition forces would be back.
Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue is the battalion commander for the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, and runs coalition efforts in Wardak province. He is a tall, sturdy Army Ranger, a combat veteran and well-versed on the threat here. Truth be told, though, Gallahue really doesn't care what brand of insurgency he is fighting. He just wants them gone.
He had talked to the boys on that first trip.
"That type of action is criminal. It's murderous. It's meant for intimidation of the population. So you can see why, when given the alternative of security and better governance, the people want it," Gallahue said. "This enemy ... they can't win if that's their alternative, if that's the future they offer."
The Tangi Valley is a fertile breadbasket in this region. Snow and rain run off the mountains into a valley of apple and pomegranate orchards. Just off of Highway 1, south of Kabul, the valley boasts one of the few paved roads in the region. But, the narrow road and high ridges make it ideal for an insurgent defense. Once entering the valley, there is nowhere to go except deeper in along its winding road flanked by small villages jutting from the hillsides. Vehicles traveling the road are easy targets, and roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices are routinely buried along the 15-kilometer route military officials dubbed "IED Alley."
This mission was launched by the 10th Mountain Division's Task Force Spartan, which took control of the Wardak and Logar provinces last month. The task force's deployment tripled the firepower here, where coalition force officials initially did not predict a serious threat developing. But as more intense fighting began in the eastern part of the country, many insurgents took advantage of the two provinces' small coalition presence and remote districts.
Soldiers from two battalions led the efforts. The 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, which runs coalition operations in the Logar province, moved northwest along the valley road, clearing mostly villages. Gallahue had his battalion's troops move southeast, clearing the majority of the rural route. The two met near the provincial borders where the 3-71st troops established a permanent coalition force presence in the valley at a combat outpost.
At the start of the operation, U.S. Special Forces troops, along with Afghan military commandos, descended on the valley in an air assault, looking for some key suspects and weapons caches. Throughout, U.S. F-15 aircraft and Apache attack helicopters flew overhead, providing air support.
Two companies of Afghan National Army soldiers, partnered with their French mentoring company, moved side by side with U.S. forces. Afghan National Police led the searches of suspects' homes.
For three days, Soldiers cleared the route, walking the road and through the villages and fields. It was slow, tedious work as, step by step, anything found suspicious was reported up the chain, and nobody moved further until any threat was cleared.
"It's nerve-wracking. You have a lot of things going on at one time," said Staff Sgt. Erik Bonnett, who was in the lead of the dismounted clearing operations for the 2-87th. "The worst part about it was the physical part. Being up this high in altitude with all the gear we wear, it starts to get to you." The valley sits at just under 8,000 feet above sea level.
He said his troops were looking for "snail trails" or markings on the ground where wires were run. They also looked for fresh tracks or areas where no grass was growing because of digging. They were always on alert for their biggest threat -- small-arms fire or rocket-propelled grenades launched from the nearby rooftops or ridgelines.
Troops with bomb-sniffing dogs also walked the road, clearing culverts, rock piles and any cars and trucks passing by. Military vehicles capable of detecting buried electronic devices also helped to clear the route.
It is Bonnett's fourth deployment to Afghanistan and, even though the days were long and the pace was slow, he realized the gravity of an error on his team's part.
"If I don't do my job, the end result is lives are lost," Bonnett said.
And insurgent fighters did not disappoint. Three bombs were found along the route. It took Soldiers nearly a half day to dig out a large propane tank, believed to be filled with explosive, from underneath the road. Once the tank was uncovered, a second wire was found leading from it to where officials believe a second bomb was buried deeper. Rather than take any more time to unearth the second device, officials chose to explode it place and repair the road.
1st Lt. Alvin Cavalier was in the lead in the route-clearing efforts. His truck was hit twice on the February trip through the valley. Cavalier said finding the bombs this time paved the way for future operations there.
"Getting hit the first couple times coming in here, you don't want that for your guys. Getting in there and digging those IEDs out of the road gave the guys a huge boost of confidence, and we'll be ready to come back in here next time," Cavalier said. "This is our battle space. We're here to clean this place up."
There were not, however, any direct attacks on the forces this time, which military officials said was a promising sign. Officials attributed it mostly to the fact that they simply had any enemy fighters outgunned.
"We took away the lines that he could attack from," Gallahue said. "He had to make a decision. Fight and die, or not fight at all."
Forces stopped in each village to talk to the local people. Gallahue and others said that on this trip the villagers were more receptive to coalition forces. Some waved at the convoys, and others milled about in their villages. In February, some Soldiers said, nobody was out. They mostly hid in their homes.
Gallahue was optimistic at the start of the trip when he spotted an old man walking down the road.
"That's a good sign," he said. If people are out, then the likelihood of an attack is less, he explained. Most know when the enemy fighters plan to strike.
Gallahue is itching to put a combat outpost on his side of the valley, but he has just put in two outposts in the Jalrez Valley, another problem spot in Wardak. There were three such outposts in Wardak when he arrived, and he has already doubled that number.
The commander said that, for the most part, the people in the Tangi are tired of the fighting. They are eager for the security that coalition forces bring.
"There is a certain amount of war-weariness in the population, and they're ready for security," he said. "We're going to go in there and turn that valley around."
Gallahue called the fight here a "true counterinsurgency," and said it could not have been accomplished with the few troops that were here before. His province was manned by only a company-sized element before Task Force Spartan took over.
Effective counterinsurgencies are people-intensive, he said.
Two battalion-sized task forces are here. Task Force Catamount is made up of Soldiers from the 2-87th Infantry, and Task Force Wolfpack is made up of troops from 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery. Both focus on operations within Wardak province. Catamount focuses on security and economic development, and Wolfpack focuses on strengthening governance in the province.
This weekend's show of force is likely the first of many for this area as Gallahue and his troops ready for the spring thaw and the anticipated increase in insurgent fighting. So far, they have been busy setting up outposts and meeting with local leaders, hoping to have established roots in the communities by the time the insurgent fighters return.
In the meantime, Gallaghue said, his troops have shown they can travel anywhere within the province to go about the business of separating the people who want peace from those who want to fight.
"This is Wardak province, and I'm responsible for security. ... Tangi Valley is part of that, and if we need to go in there we can," Gallahue said. "We'll take the physical terrain from the enemy, ... and we'll take the people away, because the people are the prize in this fight."