Subscribe
Smoke and dust surround Afghan National Army soldiers as they fire a recoilless rifle at a compound occupied by Taliban fighters in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province. The troops were trying to expand government control after clearing areas as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015.

Smoke and dust surround Afghan National Army soldiers as they fire a recoilless rifle at a compound occupied by Taliban fighters in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province. The troops were trying to expand government control after clearing areas as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Smoke and dust surround Afghan National Army soldiers as they fire a recoilless rifle at a compound occupied by Taliban fighters in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province. The troops were trying to expand government control after clearing areas as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015.

Smoke and dust surround Afghan National Army soldiers as they fire a recoilless rifle at a compound occupied by Taliban fighters in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province. The troops were trying to expand government control after clearing areas as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Soldiers with the Afghan National Army's 201st Corps 4th Brigade escort ambulances along a treacherous road from Jalalabad city to the front lines in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province during Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. The route was heavily mined and in many places the troops simply drove across fields and rivers to try to avoid the danger.

Soldiers with the Afghan National Army's 201st Corps 4th Brigade escort ambulances along a treacherous road from Jalalabad city to the front lines in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province during Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. The route was heavily mined and in many places the troops simply drove across fields and rivers to try to avoid the danger. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan Brig. Gen. Mohammad Nasim Sangin speaks over the radio while directing troops during Operation Iron Triangle in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, in August 2015. The operation was designed to clear Taliban from several districts where they had held influence for more than a decade.

Afghan Brig. Gen. Mohammad Nasim Sangin speaks over the radio while directing troops during Operation Iron Triangle in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, in August 2015. The operation was designed to clear Taliban from several districts where they had held influence for more than a decade. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan troops interrogate a man they captured after suspecting him of being a Taliban fighter. The man claimed to be a shepherd but a wad of Pakistani cash and a notebook with contact information for local Taliban leaders and Pakistani and Saudi Arabian phone numbers found in his pockets made the soldiers doubt his story.

Afghan troops interrogate a man they captured after suspecting him of being a Taliban fighter. The man claimed to be a shepherd but a wad of Pakistani cash and a notebook with contact information for local Taliban leaders and Pakistani and Saudi Arabian phone numbers found in his pockets made the soldiers doubt his story. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An Afghan army soldier prepares to fire a smoke round from a mortar during Operation Iron Triangle in Nangarhar province in August 2015. The troops regularly traded fire with Taliban forces hiding in remote mountain passes.

An Afghan army soldier prepares to fire a smoke round from a mortar during Operation Iron Triangle in Nangarhar province in August 2015. The troops regularly traded fire with Taliban forces hiding in remote mountain passes. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan army cooks prepare steaming piles of rice for an army on the move. The soldiers of the Afghan National Army's 4th Brigade, 201st Corps expected to stay camped in remote mountain valleys in eastern Afghanistan for at least a month as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015.

Afghan army cooks prepare steaming piles of rice for an army on the move. The soldiers of the Afghan National Army's 4th Brigade, 201st Corps expected to stay camped in remote mountain valleys in eastern Afghanistan for at least a month as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan army cooks unload freshly butchered goats to feed soldiers with 4th Brigade, 201st Corps bivouacked in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. The troops ate spartan meals of boiled rice, flat bread, potatoes and goat meat for almost every lunch and dinner.

Afghan army cooks unload freshly butchered goats to feed soldiers with 4th Brigade, 201st Corps bivouacked in Hisarak district in eastern Nangarhar province as part of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. The troops ate spartan meals of boiled rice, flat bread, potatoes and goat meat for almost every lunch and dinner. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan troops with 4th Brigade, 201st Corps return fire after Taliban rockets struck their camp in Hisarak district, in eastern Nangarhar province during the final phases of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015.

Afghan troops with 4th Brigade, 201st Corps return fire after Taliban rockets struck their camp in Hisarak district, in eastern Nangarhar province during the final phases of Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan troops occupy former Taliban fighting positions captured during Operation Iron Triangle in eastern Afghanistan in August 2015. The operation aimed to drive Taliban forces from areas that had not seen government troops in more than a decade.

Afghan troops occupy former Taliban fighting positions captured during Operation Iron Triangle in eastern Afghanistan in August 2015. The operation aimed to drive Taliban forces from areas that had not seen government troops in more than a decade. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An Afghan National Army soldier rests in a field aid station after being wounded during an operation to take a Taliban compound in Nangarhar province. Injured soldiers, police, and civilians, faced a grueling five-hour drive over rough roads and heavily-mined areas to be evacuated.

An Afghan National Army soldier rests in a field aid station after being wounded during an operation to take a Taliban compound in Nangarhar province. Injured soldiers, police, and civilians, faced a grueling five-hour drive over rough roads and heavily-mined areas to be evacuated. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan soldiers walk through the dark in their camp in Hisarak district in Nangarhar province during Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. The exposed camp was regularly targeted by Taliban rocket fire.

Afghan soldiers walk through the dark in their camp in Hisarak district in Nangarhar province during Operation Iron Triangle in August 2015. The exposed camp was regularly targeted by Taliban rocket fire. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan soldiers drive a Mobile Strike Force Vehicle into position as they prepare to assault a Taliban compound in Nangarhar province in August 2015. The vehicles were used to back up dismounted troops and light artillery.

Afghan soldiers drive a Mobile Strike Force Vehicle into position as they prepare to assault a Taliban compound in Nangarhar province in August 2015. The vehicles were used to back up dismounted troops and light artillery. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — In a mud-walled compound surrounded by marijuana fields and almost within sight of the local government center, Taliban fighters faced off beneath their white banner against gathering Afghan forces.

By the time the insurgents were driven off, a half dozen Taliban had been killed or captured. The question is will they come back.

Since the end of the NATO-led combat mission last year, the Taliban have launched a series of brazen attacks on district centers across Afghanistan. When forced to retreat, they quickly return.

With Afghan troops often on the defensive and losses mounting, the question is whether government forces can extend their control beyond the major towns, even though coalition officials insist the Afghans are “holding their own” during the current summer fighting season.

For almost three weeks, about 2,000 government forces have been fighting through nearly 40 miles of territory in the southern part of Nangarhar province, a key center of the fight against the Taliban, its allied insurgent networks and the nascent Islamic State in Afghanistan.

A mixed force of Afghan soldiers, police and local militiamen have descended on the area from three directions, equipped with surplus U.S. military vehicles. It’s a strategic region along the porous border with Pakistan, just north of the mountains where Osama bin Laden slipped away from U.S. and Afghan forces at Tora Bora in 2001.

Without much government presence here in the past 14 years, militants use it as a staging ground for attacks on the Afghan capital, intelligence officials say.

During the operation, code-named Iron Triangle, members of the army’s 201st Corps’ 4th Brigade were the tip of the spear. Their mission was to sweep southwest from Jalalabad to the Hisarak district center, which for years had been cut off from the provincial capital.

The route, once the main road between Kabul and the border with Pakistan, was made famous by the disastrous British army retreat in 1842 which led to nearly the entire force being massacred.

Now, leaders in Kabul hope to reopen that route and thereby bring some security and government control to the region.

Fourth Brigade is commanded by Brig. Gen. Mohammad Nasim Sangin, a gravelly voiced veteran of the war against the Soviets.It’s not the only sign of American largesse. Sangin’s troops ride into battle in thin-skinned Ford Ranger pickup trucks and up-armored Humvees. Also available are a handful of the newer Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles currently used by U.S. forces to counter roadside bombs, but so far the Jalalabad-based troops only have enough to outfit their mine-disposal unit.

Recoilless rifles battered the Taliban compounds during the final operations, while more sophisticated American technology proved less useful. Afghan soldiers trying to drive an American-made Mobile Strike Force Vehicle into position had to retreat after the armored car became stuck and nearly rolled over in the collapsing graves of an unmarked cemetery.

The NATO-led Resolute Support mission provided less-visible support for the operation, too. Advisers visited the units’ bases near Jalalabad to offer advice in planning and executing the mission, coalition officials said.

“The advisers play a critical role in the success of this operation, but it’s not to make things happen. What we want to do is ask leading questions, help the Afghans think about the best way to synchronize their efforts to achieve the best possible effect,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, Resolute Support’s deputy chief of staff for operations.

The speed with which Afghan troops moved was partly due to avoiding the road altogether, Sangin said. The advancing soldiers discovered more than 150 mines and improvised explosive devices in their path; one hillside was so heavily mined they gave up counting, he said.

Hampered by a limited number of explosive ordnance disposal teams and equipment, the 4th Brigade opted to blaze its own path, in some cases bulldozing through farmers’ fields and across riverbeds to avoid the IED-infested roads.

“That’s how we surprised the enemy,” Sangin said in an interview at his field headquarters, which was still regularly struck by Taliban rockets. “They expected us to get bogged down.”

To reach the brigade’s forward camp bivouacked just minutes from the front lines, Afghan supply convoys make a bone-jarring, five-hour drive through territory still scattered with an untold number of roadside bombs. Lacking significant air support, medevac teams must make the same trip in reverse. As a result, severely injured patients spend agonizing hours jolting around in the back of the bouncing ambulances.

Military officials declined to give an exact number of casualties suffered by the Afghan forces in their drive to Hisarak, but one brigade doctor told Stars and Stripes that medics had treated nearly 400 patients in 19 days, including soldiers, police and civilians. Most of the casualties were caused by IEDs.

In many areas of the country, Afghan forces have struggled to project power and security beyond major cities and highways. In most cases, outnumbered and outgunned, insurgents rarely go up against a major army unit head on, opting instead for strategic retreat. But when troops return to their bases, the Taliban — employing classic guerrilla tactics — come right back.

In some areas of Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan, Taliban forces have been able to use their bases of control to launch attacks that have overrun several major towns and district centers, sending Afghan troops reeling.

Hisarak’s district center is one of many in Afghanistan that have remained under government control but are regularly attacked. Beyond the main village itself, residents said they feared to spend much time in the bazaar, let alone more remote areas.

Army officials say they plan to call a council of local leaders to ask them what the government can best provide, whether it’s better roads, new schools or other services. The hope is that a greater government presence and effort can prevent the “strategic” area from slipping back under Taliban influence.

“In the last 14 years, there have been no operations in this area ... this is the first time for joint operations here,” Maj. Gen. Mohammad Zaman Waziri, the 201st Corps commander, said in a statement. “The enemies in the area come from Pakistan into Hisarak. From here they deploy into Kabul.”

A string of recent attack in Kabul claimed nearly 100 lives and injured hundreds more. Afghan officials, led by President Ashraf Ghani, have accused Pakistan of not doing enough to prevent insurgents from crossing the border.

In one instance during the Hisarak operation, troops detained a man near the district center on suspicion of being a Taliban fighter. He claimed to be a shepherd, but soldiers doubted his story after finding a wad of Pakistani cash and a notebook with foreign phone numbers and contact information for local Taliban leaders.

Some Afghan troops expressed doubt about their mission, questioning why they were asked to sacrifice so much when the area was likely to be threatened again so soon. But many had plenty of enthusiasm, whooping and cheering as artillery fire struck its targets.

“As long as my country asks me to fight, I will,” said Mohammed Dawoud, a young soldier with a wispy moustache. “As long as the Taliban come back, we will be here.”

Hamidullah contributed to this report.smith.josh@stripes.com Twitter: @joshjonsmith

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up