This story was updated Dec. 6, 2011.
First Lt. Alexander Rhoads pointed south, past an Afghan police outpost that sat like a crumbling sand castle on a hilltop in western Faryab province. Below and beyond lay a dry, dust-brown landscape of valleys and ridge lines flowing toward the Hindu Kush.
“This is where ISAF ends,” he said.
By the standards of northern Afghanistan, which is often considered more peaceful than other sections of the country, Rhoads was pointing into space. No paved roads led south. No electric lines, no government presence flickered in. Ten years after the start of the war, the region was like many other dark spots on the map of Afghanistan, a zone few conventional International Security Assistance Force soldiers had visited and where none had ever lingered longer than a firefight.
“I doubt anybody except maybe the Special Forces has been very far that way,” said Rhoads, leader of 3rd Platoon of Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery. “And we can’t really go because we don’t have enough guys.”
The Americans had climbed the hilltop to visit the Afghan National Policemen stationed there, to see how they were faring as winter approached, and to ask for more guys: Would the police join them for a patrol through a village to the south, just below their outpost?
For U.S. forces it was standard procedure. Most patrols throughout the country are conducted jointly as NATO soldiers try to remove themselves to support roles and push Afghans “out the door,” as officers often say.
But for Afghans, taking the lead does not always come easily.
The policemen were Uzbeks. The villages to the south were dominated by Pashtuns known for their tolerance of, if not sympathy for, the Taliban, and their dislike of most other ethnic groups — especially Uzbeks.
The commander hesitated. His men shifted their old AK-47s and followed his gaze to the broad plain below. They were calculating their odds.
A history of violence
When the 1-84 arrived in March, it inherited territory reaching from the provincial capital in the east, Maymana, to the border with Badghis province to the west. Much of the region was inhabited by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and other ethnic groups that largely shunned the Taliban.
In the far west, surrounding the town of Gormach and reaching south toward the Kush, spread a web of Pashtun tribes. Here, history lay on the ground like a snare, and the area would became one of the battalion’s — and one of northern Afghanistan’s — most violent spots as U.S. forces tried to prevent a Taliban resurgence.
From the British invasions of the 1800s to the Soviet era, right up until the months before the 1-84 landed, the people living around Gormach had fought foreigners and countrymen alike. On the three-hour drive from their headquarters outside Maymana to the small combat outpost at Gormach, the carcasses of military vehicles lined the roadsides, blackened monuments to Soviet failure.
Like most troops fresh to Afghanistan, those in Charlie Battery knew some of the details, some of the story. But even after a decade the American military still wrestles with the country’s complexities and with the tides of war as units arrive and depart, as progress is made and then slackens. For all its strength, the U.S. has not found reliable guides to history, culture and even emotion.
That meant most of Charlie Battery’s education would come on the ground. On the run.
Just a few weeks into its deployment, the battery met its first test, a 24-hour battle along the edge of a village named Qutani not far from their base. For hours they were pelted with rifle fire so accurate the soldiers could not take cover behind their vehicles — they had to climb onto the tires and foot rails because attackers were aiming under the trucks, at their feet.
The next day, with aircraft blasting insurgent positions, the soldiers finally withdrew. Two sergeants later won Bronze Stars for their actions during the battle, and no Americans were killed. But with bullet-cracked windows and dented steel plates on their trucks, Charlie Battery understood it had been warned.
“We thought, ‘Holy [expletive]. It’s gonna be 12 more months of this?’ ” said Capt. Timothy McCarthy, commander of Charlie Battery. “It looked like we were in for it.”
Because Charlie Battery is an artillery unit, it operates with roughly 20 men in each platoon, about half as many as in a regular infantry unit. Atop that, Gormach lies in a remote part of an already resource-strapped region, at the tail end of a war every NATO ally seems eager to leave behind.
Before the 1-84 arrived, soldiers from Nordic nations who had been working in the area were mostly pulled out by their governments because they considered the region too dangerous. The German army — which leads the NATO effort in northern Afghanistan — was busy with its own troubles, trying to prevent a Taliban comeback around the cities of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif.
“We are on the fringe,” McCarthy said, describing his job as “an economy of force within an economy of force,” which is Army-speak for “do more with less.” He had been told by his boss, Lt. Col. John O’Grady, to make friends fast.
“I pointed to the ANP and said, that’s your additional combat power,” O’Grady said. “You’re not getting any more. It forced us to partner faster, harder and in a more meaningful manner with the Afghans than we would have.”
Before they could do that, there was, of course, a problem of history.
Dangers of isolation
American officers said the local Pashtuns were relative newcomers; their ancestors had been brought up from southern Afghanistan generations ago by Pashtun rulers who hoped to “Pashtunize” the north.
After the Soviet war, Taliban fighters found sanctuary with the Pashtuns around Gormach. Attacking outward from that base, they captured cities like Maymana and Mazar-e-Sharif on the way to winning control. When the Taliban were routed by U.S. forces at the start of the current war, new local governments run by Tajiks and Uzbeks ignored the Gormach region, American officers said. The territory had once been part of Badghis but in recent years was absorbed into Faryab, though to residents it hardly mattered. International aid money pouring into Afghanistan — and most other attention — never reached this remote place.
To remind locals of their isolation, Highway 1 — a major road ringing the nation and connecting most of its big cities — stopped just short of their village, where insurgents had frightened off a Chinese construction company. The end of the pavement lay sharp and sudden like a warning. A line in the sand. Just beyond it, a wadi yawned across the landscape, one more degree of separation.
By late 2010, the region seemed to be slipping further into insurgent control, even as NATO commanders in Kabul said the war was turning their way.
Attacks near Gormach against coalition forces rose, American officers said. More IEDs appeared. Nordic troops pulled out; the Germans were otherwise occupied. Once again, Afghan insurgents showed they could embed nearly anywhere NATO’s strength ebbed. In western Faryab, that left a lot of room.
“The Taliban, being very savvy about things like this, took advantage of it,” O’Grady said. “They nested, spread tentacles.”
In March, the 1-84 moved in with orders to professionalize the Afghan National Police in the area. But there was far more wrong with the police than the battalion knew.
During the winter, the wadi near Gormach filled with ice and snow, sealing off the region. Shielded by distance and ethnicity, the local Uzbek-dominated police terrorized the Pashtun.
“It got to the point where it was rapes, murders, shakedowns,” O’Grady said. “It became a predatory police force.”
Seeing no reason to trust the Afghan government or NATO, Pashtuns tolerated or openly supported the Taliban or other insurgents. New to the scene, the soldiers of 1-84 began working with the police, siding with a hated, alien force.
And so, their first steps led backward.
“The locals looked at us and they thought, ‘What the hell are you doing working with those guys?’” said Maj. Matthew Winters, the 1-84’s executive officer. The Americans soon realized the scope of the problem. Police officers were replaced, commanders shuffled. Charlie Battery started over.
Working the angles
McCarthy met regularly with local leaders and with police commanders. His men patrolled with the police, going out every day. They sought relationships with Pashtun commanders to balance against the Uzbek police’s earlier abuses, and they built more checkpoints in the area.
The battalion also provided security for a few development projects. The 1st Platoon, 877th Engineering Company, 111th Engineering Battalion built the first bridge to span the wadi near Gormach, as well as the construction of a new road leading to the bridge.
“They were like the orphaned child out there,” said O’Grady. “We were saying, ‘Look, somebody does give a [expletive] about you.’ ”
Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces began “cutting the grass” in the deeper valleys south of Gormach, hunting insurgents like the ones who had pinned down Charlie Battery outside the village of Qutani. Special forces also started village stability operations in the area, training locals to defend and police themselves.
Drought is another factor in the contest for the area. It has lasted decades, devastating the local livestock-dependent economy. Around the time of 1-84’s arrival, Pashtun farmers had begun resisting the zakat, or levy, that the Taliban and other insurgents often impose on villages.
“In fatter times, it might not be so painful,” O’Grady said. “That changes fundamentally when they ask you for two sheep and all you got is three.”
It was not easy work for a battalion stretched thin. Early in its deployment, Charlie Battery was attacked with roadside bombs, mortars and rifle fire. Not long after the 24-hour firefight, a soldier was shot through the leg on a hilltop and bled to death before rescuers could reach him.
Charlie Battery worked the angles any way they could. The violence dropped off. U.S. commanders believed it was due to better policing, pressure from Special Forces operations and, perhaps, a slight softening of Pashtun attitudes.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no
By late autumn, McCarthy and O’Grady said things were improving. They were careful to add phrases like “step by step” and “day by day.”
“It’s no one thing,” O’Grady said. “I like to compare it to the winter solstice. It was the darkest day of the year when we got here. But then, gradually, every day it gets lighter by a minute. And one day, six months later you walk outside and you say holy [expletive], it’s light out.”
On Oct. 28, O’Grady drove from Maymana to Gormach for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new bridge fording the wadi that had once isolated Gormach. Faryab’s governor, Abdul haq Shafaq, also made the long drive. It was the first time he had visited the region.
There was no ribbon to cut, not much of a ceremony. Shafaq stayed less than 20 minutes, chatting briefly with Pashtun elders. O’Grady called it another moment of light.
McCarthy said he would make no predictions.
“There’s been a big decline in enemy activity,” he said. “At the same time, the people around here are fence-sitters. They’ll wait to see how it goes.”
He might have been speaking from any corner of the country, at almost any time in the war.
Two days later, Rhoads drove into the hills to visit a band of police at their small, tumble-down fortress. He asked the commander if they’d join him for a patrol to a little-visited village in the south. The police commander hesitated. “Yes, we’ll go with you.”
Rhoads was pleased.
“Wow, I can’t believe he said yes,” he said. “Going down south is a whole different ballgame for them. They know they could get in a firefight down there.”
The commander radioed district headquarters and asked permission to go on patrol.
Rhoads and his men waited, making small talk with the Afghans.
Around them was the detritus of outdoor living — scraps of food, eggshells, onion skins, some metal cans. On coils of barbed wire, shreds of plastic bags whipped in the breeze. A soldier looked out over the brown earth, past the trash and crumbling mud buildings toward the peaks of the Kush, hidden in distant clouds.
“Man, this [expletive] looks like the middle ages,” he said.
The commander in the valley called back. He told his men they could not join Rhoads’ patrol. “It’s not our area,” he said.
The ANP men looked embarrassed. Rhoads shrugged, unhappy but not surprised. That’s just how it goes, he said. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
For as much as the soldiers saw progress, there was also that reluctance.
To the Americans, who look ahead to the date of their withdrawal, it is a constant, frustrating, tug-of-war. Step by step, day by day, they say. A decade of steps and days.
Rhoads canceled his plans. He didn’t have enough men for the patrol. One of his soldiers sighed.
“If they won’t even patrol with us,” he said, “what the hell are we doing here?”
No one offered an answer.