Clear goal, risky approach for Operation Steel Lion 3
By LAURA RAUCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 22, 2011
STRONG POINT ALIZI, Afghanistan — The night was black, moonless. A sandy, humid haze hung in the air, further dimming the usually brilliant Afghan night. Most of the soldiers lay in the dirt in a field near Combat Outpost Ahmed Khan on Aug. 27, waiting for Operation Steel Lion III to commence. A few stood about, too nervous or too full of caffeine to sleep.
Their rides, two Chinook helicopters, were already more than four hours late. Their communications rehearsal would have to be scrubbed, along with their run-through with the Afghan National Civil Order Police, who were joining them on the mission. No one had a good feeling about this one. It didn’t help that the operation had been postponed twice due to weather.
“Every time the mission got pushed back, people got a little more worried that the mission was cursed, like it was just bad luck,” said Sgt. Blaine Zimmerman, of Cicero, Ind.
The mission for soldiers with Company C and the Scout Platoon, 1st Battalion, 32nd Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division was to cut off enemy access and supply routes to the Zhari district by taking control of a stretch of the Arghandab River at Nalgham, southwest of Kandahar city. According to brigade commander Col. Patrick Frank, the region has been the leading ingress point for insurgent activity throughout the district.
Their plan was simple, but dangerous: Land behind the enemy’s lines of defense south of the Arghandab River and cross the dry riverbed before dawn, then clear a path through any improvised explosive devices, secure a row of compounds along the north side of the river and establish a strong point to be occupied by Afghan security forces. Instead of fighting their way in from the north as the Taliban expected, they would drop in by helicopter to the south, surprising the enemy and avoiding a swath of fighting positions and IED emplacements.
“You’re behind the enemy’s defenses so you become almost cut off from friendly support. It can be very successful, or it can be very dangerous,” said company commander Capt. Dennis Call, of Albuquerque, N.M., who led the assault. “Sometimes, to be very successful, you have to take some risks.”
Company C knows about success and risk. Their village-based operations, in which they earn trust and gain support from locals then fortify areas with U.S. and Afghan security forces, have been hugely successful throughout the summer. But they’ve had to fight for nearly every inch of ground they’ve taken in Nalgham. Aside from being a major access point into the Zhari district, the region is also part of the spiritual homeland of the Taliban, having produced many of its founding high-level members. The Taliban have fought relentlessly to control it.
Since the company deployed in late March, seven soldiers have been killed and 25 wounded. Someone has been killed or severely wounded in every major operation the company has undertaken. They expected Steel Lion III to be no different.
“We didn’t sit around and talk about it, but most people went in there thinking, ‘Somebody’s going to lose their foot, or somebody might get killed,’ ” said Sgt. 1st Class Carter Conrad, of Scottsville, Va.
In the days leading up to the mission, soldiers at the company’s headquarters at Combat Outpost Nalgham who weren’t assigned to the operation kept checking in with those who were slated to go.
“Hey man, be safe. I’ll see you in a couple of days,” they told 1st Platoon’s 2nd Squad leader Sgt. Jessie Arrowood, of Travelers Rest. S.C.
“In the back of their minds they’re like, ‘Oh God, who’s not coming back?’ ” Arrowood said.
In the field near Ahmed Khan, soldiers received word around 3:15 a.m. that the helicopters were inbound. Within a few quiet moments, they were kneeling on the landing zone, ready to board.
When the Chinooks landed, their powerful twin rotors kicked up a blinding cloud of earth that slammed the soldiers, dusting them like powdered doughnuts. The blast of debris caked their eye protection, and most struggled to see as they loaded and lifted off.
Less than 10 minutes later, as they hovered to land, a heavy earthy scent wafted through the cabin and an unexpected rush of cool air greeted them as they filed out. The ground was moist and slippery from irrigation canals. That wasn’t the dry riverbed they expected. As soldiers adjusted their night-vision goggles, they realized they had been dropped into a massive old-growth marijuana plantation, about a quarter-mile west of their targeted landing zone.
“Sir, are you sure we didn’t land in Guatemala?” Zimmerman asked Call as they readied to move out.
Pushing east out of the cannabis field proved arduous for the soldiers, heavily loaded with obstacle-breaching equipment, radios, ammunition and extra rations. Marijuana plants towered over them as they slogged through the canals.
Ready at dawn
When they cleared the marijuana field and turned to cross the riverbed, soldiers found their footing along the smooth rocks and they significantly picked up their pace. Just before dawn, they were assembled on the north bank of the Arghandab, right where they wanted to be.
As the darkness lifted, the soldiers readied themselves for the assault. The scouts flanked left as Arrowood’s squad moved through the center and fired the first line charge of explosives, setting off any IEDs in their path. The rocket blew a straight line to the center compound.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect. It was just a one in million shot,’’ Arrowood said later.
As the rest of the company moved along the cleared path, 2nd Squad pushed forward and quickly blew another line charge, which breached a mud wall on the south side of the center compound. Using an IED detecting device known as a MINEHOUND, soldiers cleared the way and moved inside.
A man soon appeared and lifted his shirt to show he was unarmed. He told soldiers he was the owner and quickly offered to cooperate. If he was afraid of the Americans, he never revealed it.
The scouts moved in, blowing line charges and taking another compound to the west. The rest of Company C secured yet another compound to the east. It wasn’t long before soldiers had set up fighting positions around the compounds and on the roofs. They settled in for the counterattack they were sure would come that afternoon.
“We don’t have to worry about fighting IEDs now. If the enemy comes at us, we’re fighting from a covered position. That’s a fight that plays to our strength,” Call said.
As soldiers watched from their positions, Kiowa Warrior helicopters hovered low, covering the troops on the ground. It’s a welcome sight for the infantry soldier on the line, seeing the big guns overhead. Later that day, soldiers laughed and hollered as an A-10 Warthog and an F-16 fighter jet passed over in a show of force, shaking the ground as they flew by low and fast.
Back at company headquarters at COP Nalgham, soldiers had been making their way into the command post in a steady stream, checking to see how the mission was unfolding.
“We’ve given so much. We’ve given lives and limbs and sweat and blood,” Spc. Russell Stamann, one of the soldiers who remained back at the COP, said later. “What the guys are doing outside the wire, pushing as far as they have, is amazing. It says a lot about our company’s mettle, about our company’s toughness.”
As the afternoon drifted into evening, the owner of the compound brought out fresh grapes for the Americans, then settled in for some tea with the ANCOP officers, whom he befriended.
The counterattack never came.
As night fell, an air of ease settled in as soldiers began to realize they had taken the Arghandab at Nalgham without a shot fired or a soldier being blown by an IED.
“We leapfrogged their entire front line of defense and came in their back door, which they really didn’t have guarded,” Conrad said.
As relief forces with Company A pushed toward the newly secured Strong Point Alizi, Company C readied for the almost two-mile hike back to Strong Point Kakaran, just south of Ahmed Khan, where their vehicles were staged. The scouts stayed behind to link up with Company A.
“I had a blast. That was the second most fun day I’ve had in Afghanistan behind when the Mavericks won the NBA title,” Zimmerman said.
“It is a pretty historic operation.” Frank said. “No one has held Nalgham in a decade. It’s been a tough fight all summer.”
The Taliban fighters have been used to being attacked from the north, he said. “This is the first time we’ve been able to attack their southern defense. I think they saw those helicopters land in the Horn of Panjwai and they moved out.”
According to Call, the moral victory couldn’t come soon enough for the company that’s suffered a battalion’s worth of casualties in the five months it has been deployed.
In addition to controlling a road nicknamed Montreal that links them to Company A on the west, and securing two major fighting positions along that road, they also hold two strong points in villages in the north of Nalgham named for Company C fallen soldiers.
“We were all leery of the costs. Every time, it’s cost us blood,” Call said.
“Now we’re going to build a strong point that we don’t have to name after a soldier that’s been killed.”