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

BALA MURGHAB, Afghanistan — The gunfire came as no surprise, several short volleys smacking the dirt as soldiers bounded across an open field.

The U.S., Italian and Afghan soldiers were keenly aware that by venturing just a few miles south of their base, they’d crossed into enemy territory. Taking fire was almost a given.

“They always shoot at me,” Staff Sgt. Jason Holland said in mock bemusement afterward. “I like this country, but they always shoot at me.”

Since November, the men of the 82nd Airborne’s 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment have fought pitched battles in Bala Murghab to take a small bubble of key terrain in this Taliban-controlled valley in Afghanistan’s remote west.

But the mission here is hamstrung by a shortage of forces. And except for these show-of-presence patrols, that security bubble is as far as they can go until Afghan reinforcements arrive.

Insurgents sit to their north and to their south, ready at the trigger.

For the men of Company B’s second platoon, it feels like being on the front lines of the wrong war.

“We are not doing anything right now,” said Sgt. Alfred Seddon, 24, from St. Petersburg, Fla. “All we hear is we want to push south but we don’t have enough people. So why not just stay where we are and accomplish something?”

“I was excited when I heard we were doing a COIN (counterinsurgency) mission,” he added. “I thought, ‘Yeah, great, we are gonna achieve something.’ But now it feels like a facade.”

Bala Murghab is not a priority under Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of focusing on main population centers to combat the insurgency. So unlike in the south, where a new surge of U.S. forces is pouring in, the 82nd Airborne soldiers here are stretched thin, manning this valley that they like to describe as a Taliban vacation spot with a small contingent of forces and just barely enough supplies.

As a paratrooper element attached to the 2nd Battalion of the 321st Field Artillery Regiment, the men are far from their home unit down south, they have lost five men in their sister platoons in Bala Murghab since November and they have been tasked with a counterinsurgency mission as complex and demanding as anywhere in Afghanistan.

They stay on dirt floors in mud-and-rubble compounds that have no running water and limited generator electricity. They live with and mentor Afghan soldiers and police who, until recently, wouldn’t talk to each other. And they are operating in a region of intense tribal and political strife, where the greatest economic opportunity is the poppy route that runs through the valley and finances the insurgency.

Reaching out to the population with one hand while fighting insurgents with the other, the soldiers feel isolated and forgotten. Tempers are frayed and praise from commanders who fly in for the day rings hollow.

“I came in all gung-ho and about three months in, I lost my faith,” said Sgt. Cody Teller, 27, of Rome, Mich. “We get soda pop, but we can’t get 3-volt batteries which we need. ... I am proud of the work we do as a platoon. I love fighting for my country, [but] for a reason.”

The commanders say they are aware of the stresses, but add that the men are doing good work. They’ve unified fractious Afghan forces and maintained strong outreach to the people, allowing the 2-321, the Italians and other forces to begin a series of development projects inside the security bubble.

“What we have asked them to do is not lost on me,” said Lt. Col. William Huff, commander of the 2-321 battalion and 82nd Airborne’s Task Force Professional, which is part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team operating in three western provinces, Badghis, Herat and Ghor. “What we’ve asked them to do is live in a proximity to Afghans not precedented, because we’ve expanded our footprint. ... There’s a physical tax. There’s also an emotional tax.”

“General McChrystal has a term about troops being ‘knee deep in the river,’ ” Huff added. “I turned that into waist deep. These guys are waist deep in the river.”

‘We made it work’

Since two of their comrades were literally swept away and drowned in the Murghab River in November, the forces in Bala Murghab have been under fire and on the move. With the help of Marines special operations and Italian and Afghan forces, they’ve gained ground in two major battles.

The soldiers pitched tents in the holes and rubble of bombed compounds. With winter afoot, wet snow and deep, sticking mud greeted them everywhere.

“We had guys living in just horrible conditions,” said Staff Sgt. Chris Hand, a 2nd Platoon squad leader. “We made it work.”

A platoon from 1-508’s Company A took the northern base near Ludina village. Another unit joined with Afghan National Police in the muddy ruins of an old castle near the Bala Murghab bazaar.

Company B’s 2nd Platoon took two positions: Prius and Pathfinder. They enjoy the relative peace of their bubble and push out on patrols that are frequently greeted by a hail of bullets.

“This is just no man’s land crawling with Taliban, and one small platoon sitting right in the middle of it,” said Hand.

“There’s a definite line,” said Holland. “The minute you cross it, they open fire.”

Since December, three Company A paratroops have been killed near their position north of the main base, one by a bomb and two by insurgent gunfire. A Marine was shot in the head and critically wounded. And two Company B paratroops were killed in another district of Badghis province.

In early February, soldiers from Prius got pinned down by insurgent gunfire for almost two hours in another field south of their bubble.

Air cover, which ultimately enabled the men to bound hundreds of yards to safety, was slow to arrive. There were close calls. A tracer round struck Pfc. Brandon Zolninger’s helmet.

The men were angry.

“They don’t listen to us,” said Sgt. Alexander Grille, 22, of Miami. ‘We are the [expletive] boots on the ground and they don’t listen. Sometimes it feels like to them it’s a video game.”

At the base, Maj. Todd Grissom said the men in the field weren’t able to supply coordinates for air power but they had immediate cover from colleagues on a nearby hill.

“Philosophically, COIN is very difficult concept to grasp. It’s almost a paradox,” said Grissom, the 2-321 operations officer. “It’s very difficult for young guys to get, especially young men who enlist in a time of war to be paratroopers. I would tell you you are almost better letting 10 bad guys go than killing one innocent. It really requires incredible discipline for young guys who are pumped up.”

In an interview last week, McChrystal said places like Bala Murghab simply weren’t the focus right now.

“Just because we have our efforts in certain priority areas doesn’t mean we are not in other areas as well,” McChrystal said. “In Bala Murghab, we are operating there and operating pretty effectively. But you can say it’s an economy-of-force effort. We do there what we can now and over time, as capacity increases and the threat in other areas goes down, I think our capacity to do more there will absolutely increase.”

It’s a tough pill for the soldiers here to swallow.

“It’s like a board game to them,” said Sgt. Matthew Parga-Manasse, 25, a squad leader from Allen, Texas. “For all the [expletive] we’ve gotten passed down, we’ve done our job. We’ve done it beyond expectation and we’ve come home with everyone intact. Even our platoon sergeant says it’s surprising we haven’t lost anyone yet.”

‘How many of you men have re-enlisted?’

Col. Brian Drinkwine’s clean uniform practically sparkled in the half-circle of grungy young men around him during a whirlwind visit on Feb. 17.

“Normally I look at where to put companies,” Drinkwine told the troops at Prius. “Now I am looking at platoon placement because the brigade is stretched so thin.”

Drinkwine said that the large offensive in Helmand could affect Bala Murghab if insurgents try to seek sanctuary here.

But he wasn’t worried, he said, because the men had done such a good job of securing this area.

“How many of you men have re-enlisted?” Drinkwine asked, looking around.

No one raised a hand.

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