U.S., Afghan forces re-establish presence in Afghan district to drive out Taliban
MIRI, Afghanistan — They drove by night — more than 70 Humvees, Afghan army pickups, trucks and a mine sweeper.
Howitzers were already in place, and an air show flew overhead: a predator drone, an F-15 and two pairs of Apaches.
The convoy briefing for the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment was brief and somber. In case of enemy contact, “We fight through, we keep moving,” instructed Capt. Bill Adams. And lastly, no one could be allowed close. There was intelligence that a suicide-bomber was looking for the convoy, bound from Forward Operating Base Sharona about 30 miles west to the Andar District in Ghazni province.
Speculation ran rampant on what might be encountered. Ten Taliban fighters? More? Would they put up a fight? Would they already be gone? The grunts joked about watching “Black Hawk Down” again and about their “Arlington or Bust” bumper stickers before heading out.
The mission was to find and rout Taliban from the district, and restore a governmental presence after local officials and police had reportedly been chased from the new district center. The push was part of a countrywide offensive called Operation Mountain Fury.
“Intelligence led us to believe that this particular part of Andar was the center of gravity of the Taliban forces in the province, influencing Ghazni City,” said Lt. Col. Chris Toner, battalion commander. “It’s right near the ring road, it’s in the interior and there haven’t been a lot of coalition forces there,” Toner said. “We wanted to allow the government to come, bring Afghan security forces.”
The convoy took no fire. It did stop several times for communications checks. And it rolled into the dusty, desolate town of Miri, population 10,000, after more than seven hours, at a little after 5 a.m.
The soldiers were tired. “I detest night movements,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Rein. The townspeople just getting up looked on grimly. One elderly man hurried past a sergeant who said, “If you blow me up, I’ll kill you.”
There were no apparent Taliban in the district center, built last year by the U.S. Agency for International Development, just a dozen Afghan police.
“I’m surprised there wasn’t any [enemy] contact,” Toner said.
“Better safe than sorry,” Capt. Jeremy Secrest said.
As patrols went out into the area, searching for Taliban and intelligence, Toner met with village elders. More than 30 Afghan men, in a variety of caps and turbans, spoke in loud voices and wagged their fingers as Toner sat listening, his interpreter whispering in his ear.
“They said they needed roads, better markets,” said an American-Afghan interpreter who asked not to be named. “The colonel said, ‘Security first.’ And there was a lot of disagreement among the Afghans. It’s like 20 guys yelling back and forth.”
The townsmen, like those in most places, according to the soldiers, said there were no Taliban in their town, that they all came from elsewhere. “They’re never here. They’re always next door,” said 1st Lt. John Knox, intelligence officer.
The elders told Toner, who wanted to pay local men to clean up the place before a meeting with government and U.S. military officials, that no one would work. However, a contingent of men showed up Friday morning and started in. And a group of interpreters that went to a local restaurant for food was told they were not welcome, although a second restaurant served them.
“It’s a long process,” Toner said after the meeting with the elders. “You have to have a relationship. If they started giving names and I captured or killed some people, and then we left [there’d be retribution]. And I think they’re waiting to see what the Taliban are going to do.”
The mission to bring the provincial governor to town and leave behind more than 100 Afghan security forces was meant to both intimidate and reassure. Later that night, one U.S. Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb, but no injuries were reported.
A “show of force” included Humvees driving around the town and an A-10 Warthog that buzzed once overhead, delighting the Afghan boys in the streets.
“They got the carrot today,” Toner said of his meeting with the Afghans. “Pretty soon, they’ll be getting the stick.”