In the heart of Taliban country, reluctant Afghans are restrained by loyalty and fear
Stars and Stripes
Related story: On the hunt for weapons ... and allies
MIR HOTAK, Afghanistan — In late March, U.S. soldiers with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment were on patrol near the village of Shahi Kariz when they were ambushed by a small group of Taliban fighters.
No Americans were hit in the attack, which lasted just minutes. The Taliban fled, carrying a comrade who was killed.
But the Americans didn’t pursue. Shahi Kariz was on the edge of their operations area. The Taliban had fled to a district nominally controlled by Canadian forces.
Still, the Americans tracked the fighters with an aerial drone as they made their way to Mir Hotak, a small village about a kilometer to the southeast. Once they got there, a strange thing happened, said Capt. Chris Brawley, the Company A commander.
"When they got to the village, the whole village comes out and starts passing bags of something from one of the buildings in the village into the mosque," said Brawley, 28, of Ellington, Mo.
Imagery shot from the drone clearly shows more than two dozen bearded men loading small bags from a compound into a white Toyota van. A man drives the van a short distance to the village mosque, where the men unload the cargo.
It’s unclear what was in the bags. It could have been explosives or opium paste. But clearly it was something important enough to move in a hurry. Brawley regrets he didn’t send his men in pursuit.
The week before last, soldiers from Company A went to Mir Hotak to try to unravel the mystery.
Afghan troops searched the mosque and several compounds while American officers questioned village elders, including the owner of the compound where the suspicious material had been stored.
The Afghans were cordial and willing to chat. But they claimed to know nothing of the ambush on the Americans, and they denied that the Taliban had come to the village afterward. They denied loading the bags into the van and moving them into the mosque. Several of them claimed they’d never seen an American soldier before.
"No (bomb) materials were put inside that compound; no fighter was ever brought to the mosque," said 1st Lt. Ashton Ballesteros, 24, of Grayson, Ga. "There was nothing at the house. They lie to you. But unless you have a smoking gun, you can’t charge them with anything."
Where the Taliban began
The patrol was typical for the soldiers of Company A, and they’ve come to expect little else. After all, for nearly a year, they’ve been operating in the heart of Taliban country, where many villagers are likely to see little difference between the fighters’ harsh ideology and the Pashtun tribal codes that have governed the region for hundreds of years.
"This whole area, this is where the Taliban was born," Brawley said, sweeping his hand over a map of the region.
"If it’s not outright support of the Taliban that the people have, then it’s support for them through (the) fear tactics (the Taliban use)."
The small camp where Company A operates lies on the eastern edge of Maiwand district, about 25 kilometers west of Kandahar city and not far from the junction with Zhari and Panjwayi districts where Canadian forces have battled Taliban fighters for the last four years.
Just a few kilometers to the east is the village of Sangasar, where Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, lived and preached before he and his followers began their march to power in 1994, ousting the corrupt warlords who ruled southern Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.
Despite the importance of the area — at least symbolically — U.S. and other NATO soldiers here are still spread thin.
The main U.S. base in Maiwand is more than 10 kilometers to the west. The nearest forces are Canadian advisory teams posted with Afghan troops in two locations to the east.
But the teams are too small to project much of a presence in the area, according to the Americans.
With such a large territory to oversee, Brawley said there are villages in his operations area he can’t patrol.
"We’re doing our best," he said. "We’re hitting them where we can. But the amount of area we have to cover is huge."
The deployment of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment to Maiwand was the first large-scale posting of NATO troops to the district. The Americans have spent months just learning the terrain and the dynamics of the area.
"It’s taken us six months just to figure out where the enemy is around here," said Ballesteros.
Since setting up the camp last fall, Brawley said his company has established a safe zone of about four kilometers outside the wire. Villages within this sphere are essentially free of enemy activity. Beyond that, Taliban fighters can be found in nearly every village.
Need to walk
The soldiers use their vehicles sparingly. A number of the dirt roads in the area are believed to be mined.
"If you’re in the vehicle all the time, you’re like an alien passing through the landscape here," he said. "But if you’re out walking, it’s more likely that you’re going to get people to talk to you."
It’s not uncommon for Company A’s soldiers to go out on foot patrols for 10 to 20 kilometers at a stretch. As the weather has cleared in recent weeks, enemy contact has become more common.
The terrain is perfect for guerrilla warfare. Vast fields of wheat, opium poppy and other crops give the Taliban plenty of cover. Mazes of irrigation ditches, underground water systems known as "karizes" and deeply trenched grape fields provide ideal ambush positions.
"You could hide the entire 3rd Infantry Division out there," Brawley said, gesturing at his map.
When the Americans do take fire, the Taliban rarely stick around to fight.
"They know that within a very short time, a helicopter or fighter plane is going to appear, and it’s going to be all over for them," Brawley said.
Despite the frequent contact, only a handful of Company A’s soldiers have been wounded. None has been killed. But there have been some close calls.
Spc. Brandon Reed, 22, of Gary, Ill., was walking point during a patrol when a bomb exploded about 15 meters away. He remembers falling down, and seeing his team dive for cover. When he rejoined them later, they couldn’t believe he had survived.
"Everybody was like, ‘Holy shit, you’re still here?’ " he recalled.
The blast occurred within a few meters of a mud-brick compound. When the soldiers questioned the villagers inside, they claimed not to have even heard the blast.
"That’s how afraid people are of the Taliban around here," Brawley said. He attributes some of Company A’s "super good luck" to the fact that the Taliban the Americans are facing are not their best or most experienced fighters.
"Many of them are just kids," he said. "These aren’t the guys who fought the Russians."
It’s been difficult developing reliable sources of information on the enemy, and the Americans have made few inroads. Some people who’ve had family members killed by the Taliban have stepped forward to help. Others have provided information in exchange for money.
Villagers will occasionally display a sudden gesture of hospitality that is difficult to square with the fact that fighters nearby may have been shooting at them just the day before.
On the afternoon the soldiers were returning from Mir Hotak, a man stood in a doorway with his children. He called out to the soldiers in Pashto, offering tea as they passed.
"It’s just part of the culture here," Brawley said later. "You invite your enemy into your home."