Afghans lead the way in these mountains
DEY CHOPAN, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters called to each other in Arabic across the mountainsides in Dey Chopan district, a part of southern Afghanistan plagued by poverty and violence near the border with Pakistan.
The Taliban were tracking a platoon of Afghan National Army troops, from 1st Candat, 2nd Battalion, 205th Corps, and their American Embedded Tactical Trainers from the South Carolina National Guard as they drove deep into the mountains to replace another ANA platoon. The movement required a dangerous trek up a twisting track seldom traveled by coalition forces.
Last time the platoon came here, during a recent operation, they encountered nine roadside bombs, according to the ETT commander, Maj. Harry Bird, 44, of Charleston, S.C.
The ANA, riding in Ford Ranger pickups, and the ETT, in armored Humvees, moved up the road with caution, driving carefully over the many deep ruts and potholes and stopping regularly to scout for the enemy.
Each time the convoy halted, the ANA troops, a mix of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns and Hazars, leapt out of their vehicles and sprinted up the slopes like mountain goats, searching for the enemy.
ETT mentor Capt. John Gorsage, 34, of Columbia, S.C., a pharmaceutical salesman in civilian life, said there’s no way an American can keep up with the Afghans on the mountain.
“These guys weigh about 110 pounds. They have body armor and an AK-47 and maybe a bottle of water. I have watched them charge a mountain with reckless abandon. When they are shot at and see where it is coming from they are running up the mountain like you wouldn’t believe, and they don’t stop,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Byron Bell, 38, of Gaston, S.C., rates the Afghans as fierce fighters.
“You never met anybody as tough as some of them. They don’t give up,” he said, adding that it’s pointless trying to keep up.
“Most of the time you are like, ‘Bring up the truck,’” he said.
The Afghan commander, Maj. Azmudin, said his soldiers like to fight in the mountains.
“The Taliban come to this area like robbers and put in IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or shoot some rounds and run away,” said the bearded soldier who served in the Afghan Air Force when Russians occupied his country.
“The Russians were not brave guys, but some of the Americans are brave,” he said, adding that the ETT team is the first attached to his unit.
Tires crunched through icy mountain streams as the convoy climbed toward snowy peaks above, while goatherds with their flocks traversed the steep slopes. In a surreal scene, an old man passed by with a camel at 8,000 feet above sea level.
Bird said his 16-man team is charged with training and mentoring the ANA while conducting combat operations. In seven months, ANA soldiers working with the ETT have killed 120 Taliban and sustained two friendly soldiers killed in action and 20 wounded, he said.
The ETT does humanitarian assistance drops of food, blankets, school supplies, children’s winter clothes, cooking oil, soccer balls and radios three to four times a month, he said.
Eventually the soldiers came to a high mountain valley where farms were scattered beneath spectacular rock formations. Pashtun tribesmen worked the fields with their hands, boys led donkeys packed with firewood, and children in colorful clothes ran to the roadside in search of sweets.
Bird said the Pashtuns are hospitable people.
“If you walk in anywhere, they will ask you if you want tea. If you walk into a village, even if it is their last piece of food, they will offer it to you because you are a guest. The ANA are the same way,” he said.
Qauom, an Afghan interpreter who helps the ETT and ANA communicate, said the violence in Dey Chopan is caused by poverty.
“Million of dollars in foreign aid is benefiting only the wealthy and the powerful in Afghanistan. In Kabul, politicians are driving around in $100,000 SUVs and using the money to educate their children overseas instead of spending it on the poor people. Every child in Afghanistan knows what is happening,” he said.