With US help, Afghan forces prepare to take on an elusive enemy
Capt. Kevin Carroll, right, K Troop commander, and Spc. Ethan Cochran, a radio telephone operator, communicate with their operations center during a partnered clearing operation near Forward Operating Base Azizullah, Oct. 24, 2013.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE AZIZULLAH, Afghanistan — With its stripped buildings and empty barracks, the American side of this three-year-old outpost near Kandahar was on the cusp of turnover to the Afghan army in late October.
One problem remained: What to do about the insurgents next door?
An effort to clear the enemy fighters during a daylong operation with Afghan forces underlined the tenacity of an enemy determined to hold its ground as U.S. forces pull back and local police and soldiers take their place.
Azizullah is a collection of concrete T-walls, concertina wire and hard-floored tents just north of Highway 1 in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province — an important route for both government forces and the insurgents trying to undermine them. Built as U.S. forces surged in southern Afghanistan, the base held a full U.S. battalion at its height, but by this year it housed just a single, company-sized unit.
That unit, K Troop, 3rd Squadron, was responsible for closing the base down. It also partnered with a local Afghan army battalion and its eager commander, Saidzainudin Rohani. Rohani, who wore a thick moustache and a giant turquoise ring, had an easy rapport with U.S. commanders. Sitting before a map of the district one day, he recounted to Lt. Col. Eric Smith, commander of 3rd Squadron, where his men died securing checkpoints and outposts across Maiwand.
“We didn’t get these locations by ourselves freely,” he said. “We lost soldiers, we lost men.”
“We can’t allow it to slip back,” Smith responded.
And so the Americans went to Rohani when their surveillance balloons above the outpost found the insurgent network south of Highway 1. They watched men dig weapons out of the surrounding farm fields and carry them into the compounds, and they saw them fiddle with objects in the ground several times each day, as though they were activating a perimeter of mines in the evening and deactivating it in the morning.
Ignoring U.S. warnings, Rohani immediately sent his men toward the compounds. This sparked a firefight that ended in a stalemate and left an Afghan soldier with minor wounds. The enemy fighters fled when members of K Troop arrived in their Stryker armored vehicles to help. Soon after, the fighters were observed digging in the surrounding fields once again.
The Americans and Afghans regrouped. This time they would formulate a full clearance operation, with blocking positions to capture the fleeing insurgents.
They planned routes of entry and exit and phase lines. U.S. soldiers and Afghan police would block the perimeter as an Afghan company cleared several mosques and buildings where militants had been seen carrying weapons. K Troop’s commander, Capt. Kevin Carroll, and one of his platoons would trail behind.
Rohani encouraged his men before they set out the next morning.
“You’ve already been in this area,” he said. “You know where to go.”
Smith warned the group that enemy fighters would try to blend into their surroundings.
“They’ll start to fight until they see how many people we have,” he said. “Then they’ll drop their weapons and pretend to be farmers or try to escape.”
Soldiers and police gathered in place before dawn, and Rohani’s men marched south as the sun peeked above the horizon. What happened next was caught by surveillance balloons and watched in real time by Americans and Afghans in K Troop’s operations center.
As the soldiers crossed Highway 1, scanning the ground with handheld mine detectors, activity picked up around the compounds to the south. Men huddled together. Someone pulled up on a motorcycle and spoke briefly with a group of men before speeding away.
Several men then began digging in various spots around the compounds. One man removed a pair of long objects from a furrow. The group eventually came together and convoyed to the southwest on motorcycles. The surveillance cameras followed them on a winding road – directly past where Afghan police were supposed to be blocking.
“They’re out of our reach now,” one of the soldiers in the operations center said.
By the time Rohani’s men arrived, most of the fighters were gone, leaving only farmers and families. Rohani’s men made several arrests and set fire to an empty shack where fighters had been seen congregating. They searched the compounds and the ground without any luck.
One of the blocking positions began taking isolated fire, which wounded an Afghan soldier in the head. Forty minutes later, one of the U.S. Strykers hit a roadside bomb, injuring the driver. K Troop evacuated the Afghan soldier, who was taken away by medevac, and sent an explosive ordnance disposal team to the Stryker. The operation began to wrap, and soldiers pulled back.
Carroll radioed in to the operations center: “Right now I think we’ve achieved everything we’re going to achieve today.”
Smith, who watched the clearance from the surveillance feed, deemed the operation a worthy effort, if flawed in parts. It would boost the confidence of Rohani and his men, he said, and disrupt an insurgent network that threatened movement in the area.
Maiwand was a large, open district, and it needed an Afghan unit willing to move off checkpoints and bases to attack the enemy, he said. “I think this will buy us some time for the rest of the year.”
Two hours later, as U.S. and Afghan soldiers trickled back to their bases, and as K Troop continued to extract the damaged Stryker, U.S. surveillance cameras panning the area focused on a stretch of road that had been cleared earlier. There, a dismounted motorcycle rider swept dirt over something he had just placed in the road. He dusted it with a scarf, mounted his motorcycle and drove back into one of the compounds that Afghans had cleared.
The soldiers watching in the operations center groaned . They knew exactly what it was: one more roadside bomb, courtesy of a neighbor who just wouldn’t go away.