Another search, another fruitless day with villagers
MUCHAI KALAY, Afghanistan - A dozen men gathered around the U.S. troops who had come to their village on a bright morning to inquire about the bloody events of a week earlier.
A pair of insurgents had ambushed two soldiers on patrol with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment in the farming village of Muchai Kalay on April 12. The area, 15 miles from Pakistan in eastern Khost province, is under the influence of the Haqqani terrorist network.
The attackers opened fire with AK-47s, hitting Staff Sgt. Damian Remijio in the shoulder and Spc. Zachary Fitch in the leg. Remijio, 26, of Chicago, and Fitch, 20, of Lenexa, Kan., survived the gunshot wounds and a close-range grenade blast.
On this day, a platoon led by 1st Lt. Caleb Sheffield drove three miles from Combat Outpost Sabari to Muchai Kalay to find out whether anyone could provide details about the assailants.
The group of villagers assembled in a dirt courtyard bordered by homes made of stone. A 40-year-old farmer named Mirbad Shah, wearing a black turban, whose tail dangled to his knees, stepped forward to act as spokesman.
The ensuing conversation, aided by an interpreter, hewed to a script so familiar to U.S. soldiers that Sheffield, 24, of Reno, Nev., anticipated Shah’s useless responses before he uttered them.
“Did anyone see the men who were shooting?” the lieutenant asked.
As the interpreter translated his question in Pashto for Shah, Sheffield turned to me and said in a low voice, “He’ll say nobody saw anything.”
When Shah finished speaking, the interpreter said, “He says that nobody saw the people who did the shooting. Everyone stayed in their homes.”
After posing another question — “Are there any Taliban living here in the village?” — Sheffield again predicted Shah’s answer: “Everyone here is good, there’s no Taliban. They’re from Pakistan.”
Through the interpreter, Shah replied, “There is nobody suspicious living in this town. We are all farmers. The Taliban are coming from Pakistan.”
“Yup, they’re all farmers,” Sheffield said, his voice flat with sarcasm. “Everyone’s always farming.”
The futile cycle repeated for a few more questions until Sheffield received a radio call. Members of his platoon combing the village’s periphery for weapons caches had discovered a pressure plate for an IED wrapped in a plastic sack and tucked into the wall of a shallow ditch.
“I have to go,” Sheffield told Shah. “Some of my guys found part of an IED.”
Shah appeared unwilling to believe him. “You won’t find anything bad in this town,” he said.
“It’s too late,” Sheffield said. “We already did.”
Shah claimed he wanted to see for himself and started following Sheffield toward the ditch about a quarter-mile away. But after walking no more than 100 yards, he stopped and retreated to the village.
Sheffield reacted to his departure with a small smile. “I guess he didn’t want to see anything bad.”
A week later, Sheffield’s platoon and another with the Afghan National Army traveled before sunrise to the nearby village of Maktab to search for a man suspected of planting IEDs in the area.
The soldiers walked through the town to set up a security perimeter around a mud-brick compound identified in intelligence reports as the man’s house.
They moved quietly past yards enclosed by tall stone walls — but not quietly enough. Several dogs exposed their presence, barking without end as roosters crowed and cows lowed.
A ban on troops conducting night raids on Afghan houses had taken effect less than three weeks earlier. Mindful of the new policy, Sheffield waited 15 minutes.
At 4:25 a.m., as dawn’s gray light crept over the surrounding hills and toward the village, he told the Afghan platoon leader to prepare his men to enter the compound in five minutes.
The Afghan sergeant, standing almost a head shorter than the 6-foot-3-inch Sheffield, stared at the lieutenant. “We should wait until 5 a.m.,” he said. “We should let them pray.”
“Until 5?” Sheffield said in a sharp whisper. “We’re trying to do this before he wakes up and leaves.” He held up his left hand with fingers outstretched. “Five minutes.”
The Afghan sergeant gave the order to his men. Several crowded beside the compound’s main entryway as two of them banged on its corrugated metal door.
After a minute or two, a thin, bowed man with a dark beard and dressed in a white shalwar kameez unbolted the door from inside. Afghan and U.S. soldiers stepped across the threshold and began to look for the suspect.
The man didn’t live there, and the people who did claimed not to know him. Perhaps he had gone to Pakistan. Or perhaps they simply didn’t want to see the truth.