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Afghan, coalition forces bridge doubts to make gains in Bala Murghab

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 10, 2010

BALA MURGHAB, Afghanistan — The Afghan flag went up over Objective Prius on Dec. 30, thick stripes of black, red and green waving whisperlike in the winter wind, a proclamation of hard-won conquest.

U.S., Italian and Afghan forces battled for three days to take two positions in this Taliban-controlled valley in northwestern Afghanistan. The insurgents were well-trained and ferociously guarded their terrain, including a key poppy route that runs north along the Murghab River, forming a spine up the long, narrow valley and into Turkmenistan.

In unceremonious victory, Afghan soldiers tied their flag to a tripod of sticks and staked their claim.

“It was just like, ‘Yeah, we are here. What are you gonna do about it?’ ” said Sgt. Cody Teller, of Rome, Mich., of the 82nd Airborne’s 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “They hate that flag so we try to put it up wherever we go. I guess it’s a symbol of everything we are trying to accomplish: just to get the government out and recognized.”

In Helmand province, a flag-raising over the Taliban stronghold of Marjah last month commanded international attention.

In Bala Murghab, a line of flags plots an unsung tale of battlefield victories, spanning the narrow midsection of this valley from west to east like the parting of a Taliban Red Sea in a region long devoid of government presence.

Now coalition forces can stand on a fortified mountaintop on the east side of the valley and look across it to the base where they were confined by enemy fire just three months ago.

“It’s a really good feeling to have a position on this hill,” said Maj. Todd Grissom, who is running operations for the 2nd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment, which is in charge of U.S. forces at Bala Murghab. “When we got here, we would look across the valley, but we couldn’t come anywhere near this hill.”

Territorial gain was just the beginning. The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police were in something of a gang war while a thug mentality infected the police force. Tribal strife plagued this majority Pashtun district in a majority Tajik province, making residents easy recruits for the Taliban. And the lucrative drug trade was a draw for those poor farmers.

Flanked by dense mountain ranges, the valley had become what soldiers like to call a Taliban vacation spot, a Pashtun sanctuary far from the probing guns and international forces waging this 8-year-old war.

Winning unity among Afghan security forces and persuading the local population to give government a chance took as much effort as forcing the Taliban out of this swath of territory.

Still, insurgents have simply retrenched to the north and south, and new battle lines are clearly drawn, showing just how slow and painstaking success is in Afghanistan. Hard-earned victories like this one will have to be repeated across the embattled country for years to make lasting impact, leaving some to wonder whether the U.S. and NATO have the staying power.

“Bala Murghab is an illustrative example of the complexity of the whole country,” said Lt. Col. William Huff, who commands the 82nd’s operations in Badghis, Herat and Ghor provinces.

“How do we do this throughout the valley?” he asked. “I believe it’s one village at a time. I believe it’s showing commitment and patience.”

Operation Hero Recovery

When forces from the 82nd arrived in September, they took over a coalition base in the heart of insurgent control. The Italian and U.S. forces, along with their Afghan National Army comrades, could venture no farther than the bazaar just across the river without taking enemy fire.

“They were like prisoners on the FOB,” said Brig. Gen. Ziaratshah Abed, commander of the ANA’s 201st Brigade. “The river became the dividing line, with government of Afghanistan (and coalition) forces in the west, Taliban in the east.”

Then, tragedy struck. On Nov. 4, while out to retrieve an air drop of supplies near the river, soldiers from the 1-508 took insurgent fire. Two soldiers in full gear tried to ford the river. One fell in, swept by fast, unexpectedly deep waters, and the other jumped in to save him.

Both were swept away, prompting a massive search that drew in Afghan security forces who until then had been lukewarm partners.

To conduct the search, coalition forces had to push hard into insurgent territory to stop incessant enemy fire, winning valuable ground and forging an unexpected unity among the varying forces working on the side of the Afghan government.

“I think what it did was rally everybody,” Grissom said. “It inspired people to make sure what they experienced wasn’t in vain.”

Grissom believes that the nature of the accident also spoke to ordinary Afghans, familiar with the river’s dangers. This was a tragedy they could relate to. In fact, it was an Afghan civilian who discovered the second body and reported him to U.S. forces.

Operation Hero Recovery, as it came to be called, lasted several days and involved intense battle by myriad U.S., Italian and Afghan forces to uproot insurgents.

Coalition forces captured a key strategic position near the town of Ludina to the north of the base and special operations forces were halfway across the valley when they called in an erroneous gun run by an A-10 jet.

Five Afghan commandos were killed and 23 other soldiers, mostly Afghan, were wounded. The push was called off.

Bridging forces

After Operation Hero Recovery, squads of Italian, U.S. and Afghan forces spread out over a series of checkpoints in the regions now under government control.

U.S. and Italian forces moved with ANP to several checkpoints as well as the ruins of a former castle near the bazaar, which was the police headquarters.

But the Afghan army under the local command of Col. Abdul Ali and the Afghan police under Col. Sultan Mohammad Lewall wouldn’t even talk to each other.

That rivalry came to a head on Thanksgiving Day when an Afghan police officer shot and killed an ANA soldier.

The police officer, called Mirweis, was the brother of a police private named Shaw Ali, whose power base far surpassed his lowly rank. Described by U.S. officers as a thug, Shaw Ali was said to surround himself in Mafia-like fashion, extorting money from bazaar shopkeepers and terrorizing people within and outside the police force, Grissom said.

“It was a mob war on Thanksgiving between the ANA and the ANP,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Holland, 25.

Mirweis and Shaw Ali were jailed, helping to ease tensions and giving Lewall the confidence to shore up his police to carry out their mission.

Over the next month, as Afghan and coalition commanders worked to prepare the next operation, the soldiers on the ground worked to build relationships.

By the time the two eastern positions of Prius and Pathfinder were captured during Operation Bon Giorno in late December, the ANA and ANP were reluctant but willing to move jointly onto these bases with coalition forces.

“We were the common denominator,” said 1st Lt. Kell Anderson, 23, who commands the 2nd Platoon of 1-508, which is split between the two eastern objectives. “They trusted us and began to trust each other. Now we play cards together.”

For infantry paratroops trained in combat, these new counterinsurgency efforts of bolstering and mentoring the Afghan forces as well as reaching out to civilian populations are a dramatic shift, and some are still grappling with the achievability of their goals.

“Sometimes I feel like I am doing a lot, and sometimes I feel like I am doing nothing,” said Spc. Nic Carey, 22, of Franklin, N.H. “You look at this country and think, can this country ever be self-reliant? Can this force really stand on their own?”

But many have embraced the bond with their Afghan counterparts, making Bala Murghab a place that Italian, American and Afghan commanders say is a model for unity, or shana ba shana, shoulder to shoulder, as the oft-cited mantra goes.

Even after a rogue ANA soldier opened fire at the FOB in December, killing an operating room technician, forces continued to bond.

In Bala Murghab, soldiers from Prius and Pathfinder are often seen taking rides from their ANA comrades, a surprising sight in Afghanistan. Anderson said the ANA unit can plan its own patrols, and Carey noted that unit members learned to pass back hand signals.

“For what we are trying to accomplish, this is the only way,” said Staff Sgt. Chris Hand, 26, recalling that on his first two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, his unit would enter into areas on quick-hit assault missions and then leave again. “I never want to go back to the other way, just assault in and kill the bad guys. I think the people of Afghanistan are building so much trust in the ANA and ANP.”

Reaching the population

As the Afghan forces came together, coalition forces were also reaching out to a disaffected population.

Key to the effort was the intelligence chief in Bala Murghab, whose network is deeply plugged in with the population and the operations of a still-strong Taliban shadow government.

Even in areas captured by coalition and government forces, residents have been slow to transfer their support, and Grissom and the other commanders spend much of their time meeting with village elders and planning construction projects in an effort to convince the population that it pays to be on the government side.

Around the same time Lewall began asserting his authority, police arrested the district governor of Bala Murghab, Mohammad Amin Azekai, on corruption charges.

“The governor was … so aggressive, he was driving people away from government,” Grissom said. “He was robbing people blind.”

Now, he said, people are coming back to the district center, where Lewall is acting district governor as well.

At the bazaar, people wave to and welcome U.S. forces, and soldiers such as Hand are comfortable walking around in small numbers with their ANA counterparts. Still, tensions are high. Soldiers speak of well-demarcated battle lines to the north and south of their positions, and the paratroops manning the outposts have harrowing tales of fights just outside the areas of control.

Three soldiers have been killed near the position outside the village of Ludina since January, including one by a homemade bomb, as have a number of Afghan civilians.

Not long ago, a village elder by the name of Haji Wakeel, known among the U.S. command here for his Taliban ties, assured a U.N. World Food Program convoy that they would have clear passage up through Bala Murghab with food for the needy.

The convoy, 100 trucks, was hijacked and everything was stolen. In a valley that is poor, but not starving, that many trucks of food can be sold for money to buy significant weaponry, said one U.S. commander.

Last week, the governor of Badghis province, Delbarjan Arman, came up from the provincial capital Qal ‘eh-ye Now to meet with coalition commanders and village elders who complained that their tribe is not represented in Arman’s government.

Arman told the men that he’s been to the valley 14 times in 10 months, inviting the elders repeatedly to send representation to Qal ‘eh-ye Now.

“But they say, ‘No sir, I am scared, sir. If I do, something will happen to me,’ ” Arman said later. He promised the residents that the way forward to reconstruction and economic assistance is to side with the government. The tribal strife has to stop, he said.

“These actions will destroy our country. We should stop that. Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Pashtun. We are all brothers.”

“It’s the whole thing of which side do you want to be on,” Grissom said later. “They really want to hedge their bets in the Afghan way.”


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