Benefits of 'economy of force' missions in Afghanistan remain unclear

First Lt. Roderic O'Connor, right, a platoon leader with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, talks with a village elder named Amir, left, in the village of Kuza Chawatra in Logar province.


By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 29, 2011

KUZA CHAWATRA, Afghanistan — First Lt. Roderic O’Connor sat in the shade of a fruit tree with a village elder who wore a silver pinky ring, a gold watch and a smile as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s.

The man, who gave his name as Amir, stroked his coal-black beard as he listened to the young soldier with the spiky flattop and earnest demeanor.

“This is your land,” said O’Connor, 25, who commands a Scout platoon with the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division.

“We want to respect you and make sure you’re part of this decision.”

The unit had arrived a few hours earlier in Kuza Chawatra, a farming village wedged into a narrow mountain valley in Logar province 15 miles from the Pakistan border. O’Connor explained that the soldiers wanted to build a traffic checkpoint in the hope that local authorities would monitor vehicles traveling in and out of the reputed Taliban stronghold.

Amir agreed to the proposal in principle. But the project would die before it began.

Within 48 hours of the meeting, insurgents attacked the troops. When the hourlong firefight had ended, the time and impetus to build the checkpoint had slipped away.

“We’re going into these places where no one has gone for awhile,” said Sgt. Aaron Welch, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a sniper with the platoon. “I know there’s something to be gained out here, (but) I just don’t always know what it is.”

The unit dominated the battle midway through its five-day mission in the Azra district of easternmost Logar, a jagged thumb of land seldom patrolled by U.S. forces.

Yet as in other isolated districts of eastern Afghanistan lacking a steady coalition presence — the closest base to Azra lies almost a half-hour away by helicopter — the long-range military benefit of such in-and-out, “economy of force” operations remains unclear. Days after the company’s mission in mid-June, a suicide bomber driving an SUV laden with explosives blew up a hospital in a nearby village, killing more than two dozen people.

Likewise, with President Barack Obama set to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer, efforts to nurture development and infrastructure projects in the country’s outlying areas would appear in jeopardy, if not already doomed.

“I have no problem fighting for the people in these villages,” said Sgt. Frank Cuchina, of Melbourne, Fla. “That’s part of being in the Army — stand up for people who can’t. But what happens after we’re gone? That I don’t know.”

The Peywar Pass connects Logar to Pakistan and serves as a gateway and getaway route for insurgents crossing the border. The pass opens up to Azra’s valleys, where the loamy soil sustains endless rows of marijuana and poppy plants that provide the Taliban with a vital revenue source.

The fields doubled as a landing zone for the Chinooks that delivered U.S. and Afghan troops to Azra on a weekday morning as the sun edged above the serrated mountaintops.

In the 1980s, the mujahedeen hid amid the crags and crevices to ambush the invading Soviet army. Now, men and children gathered along Kuza Chawatra’s main dirt road to gawk at the visitors walking into town. Soldiers sipped chai with village elders and handed out ballpoint pens to youngsters.

In the afternoon, O’Connor discussed the checkpoint project with Amir and the leader of the Afghan army unit working with the headquarters company.

O’Connor sought to set up the checkpoint beside a cellphone tower on a ridge high above Kuza Chawatra. The strategic vantage point would allow Afghan soldiers and police to scan the valley for insurgents, whose ranks include members of the Haqqani network.

Amir and the Afghan commander instead suggested a site in the village. In part, their idea was motivated by concern that guards might balk at regularly making the steep, milelong hike to the tower.

O’Connor agreed to the village location, with the caveat that he and his men would establish a secondary checkpoint next to the tower. A short time later, after he returned to his platoon’s temporary patrol base by the tower, insurgents showered his unit and another in the vicinity with automatic rifle fire and mortars, attacking from three positions on higher ground.

Seven soldiers in O’Connor’s platoon dove behind a large rock when the shooting began. Realizing they were still exposed, they sprinted 60 feet to a makeshift bunker where most of the unit had taken refuge.

Dirt sprayed their legs as rounds bit into the earth around them.

“I was thinking, ‘God, please don’t let this be my time,’ ” said Spc. Leslie Elliott, of Oak Grove, Calif.

As tufts of smoke wafted from the rifle muzzles of other soldiers, O’Connor and Sgt. Thomas Williams, a communications specialist from Anoka, Minn., shouted into radios to direct air support.

An F-15 swirled overhead for several minutes before unloading a 500-pound bomb that slammed into the mountain above the platoon. A white cloud rose from the ridgeline as the explosion’s echo swallowed all sound across the valley.

“That was,” Elliott said, “the greatest noise I think I’ve ever heard.”

An Apache helicopter offered an encore by firing its 30 mm gun at another insurgent position. Enemy weapons soon fell silent, but even with more than a dozen militia fighters killed and no U.S. casualties, the platoon’s mood was something less than euphoric.

“If they were trying to get our attention,” Welch said, “I’d say they did a pretty good job of it.”

For O’Connor, his face smeared with dirt, the ambush confirmed what he anticipated heading into the mission. “We knew this could happen,” he said. “This area is an economic center for the Taliban. They don’t want us coming around.”

Hours after the firefight, some villagers received a so-called “night letter,” leaflets distributed by insurgents under cover of darkness and typically containing threats against residents who aid U.S. forces. The letter stated that more Taliban fighters from Pakistan would arrive in the morning.

But the next day proved to be quiet, leading soldiers to speculate the reinforcements never arrived or chose to lay low rather than risk a second day of heavy losses.

In the evening, troops started leaving. Residents stood along the road to watch.

The checkpoints had not been built. The marijuana and poppy plants would still be harvested. The future of Azra looked the same as its past.

“The people here don’t know if we’re going to be back,” Welch said. “We don’t know, either.”

Twitter: @martinkuz 

Poppy and marijuana fields carpet the valleys of Azra district in eastern Afghanistan's Logar province, providing the Taliban with a crucial revenue source.