I came to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Kunar to report a story on what it would take to win this war. For the past three years I have watched U.S. and coalition military tactics evolve from a purely kinetic approach to a much more subtle operation informed by Gen. David Petraeus's philosophy of counter-insurgency. In short, it is no longer about dominating the enemy but rather about enabling Afghans to stand up for themselves. If we can provide security while strengthening local governance, the theory goes, Afghans will choose to throw off the insurgent's yoke. In practice, however, it's a lot more complicated, especially in the Korengal Valley, where a toxic combination of local grievances, Taliban sympathizers, al-Qaeda operatives and professional warlords has taken 39 American lives since 2006. For a few days I based myself at Restrepo, an American firebase perched on a mountain ridge overlooking three of the valley's most important villages. One, called Loi Kolay, had been particularly problematic. Last November the Taliban pulled the village elder out of the mosque and shot him, accusing him of working with the Americans. Then they beheaded his corpse in the village square. Things started going downhill after that. (See pictures from Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley.)
One morning a bullet ripped through the thick fog blanketing Restrepo, then another. "We got contact," some one screamed. The soldiers, part of first platoon, Bravo Company, 1-26 of the First Infantry Division, jumped to their firing positions, and squad leaders started shouting mortar coordinates into their radios. "I can't see s---," said one. "Where's it coming from?" Reports of more fire started coming in from the Korengal Outpost, the main base, and then from Dallas, a nearby observation post where one of the men had been hit by shrapnel. It was a coordinated attack; the dense clouds blanketing the valley provided the perfect cover for the insurgents. A new command came over the radio: "If you see anyone standing outside of a building, consider it hostile intent and fire at will." "As soon as I can see a building I'll let you know," retorted the gunner. A vicious exchange of gunfire echoed from below the post, silenced only by roar of mortars hitting the insurgent's suspected firing positions. Then all was still. The thin, wavering sound of the call to prayer lifted from the village below. Still, the soldiers could see nothing. They had no idea if they had been able to defeat their enemy, or if he had simply disappeared back into the village he had come from.
Later that day we embarked on an operation to Loi Kolay, in part to speak with the villagers, but also to see what we could learn about the morning's attack. Usually we went to Loi Kolay at night because unlike the American soldiers, the Taliban don't have night vision scopes and don't fight in the dark. Far too many day trips to the village ended up with soldiers getting shot at on their way home. But night trips don't lend well to winning hearts and minds, especially if you are kicking down doors in search of weapons or contraband. The mission was planned so that we would arrive late in the afternoon, enabling us to meet the villagers but timed to return to base in the dark.
The journey started out well enough. We left the Restrepo firebase the usual way: a series of sprints down an exposed trail interspersed with a quick breather behind a hesco barrier something like a six-cubic foot sandbag put up for that purpose. Then we hit a creek, and followed it down about 500 meters through holly, oak and cedar forest. The creek bed was solid rock in places, smoothed by water into a taffy ribbon of undulating striped granite. We passed stone houses tucked into the riverine curves, their stilt-supported balconies jutting into the void. We glimpsed flashes of bright pink as the women ducked into doorways when we passed.
The villagers claimed to know nothing about the shooting coming from Loi Kolay earlier that day. They hadn't seen any strangers in town, they said, and promised to report any suspicious activities. We talked about the village's needs and fielded complaints about the goats that had been killed by mortar fire a few days before. Sergeant First Class Lucas J. Young, who was leading the mission, asked one man what he could do to help the village. "Nothing," he responded. "We don't want anything, just peace." Previous missions had elicited the same response. To Lucas, it was a repeat of the charade that had been going on for the past five months. "We are just moonwalking here. There is nothing we can bring these guys, there is nothing they want from us. They just want to be left alone."
Finally it was dark, and we started the arduous trek up through the village to the main road, where we would take a breather before continuing the climb up the mountain to the firebase. As soon as we got to the road we started the usual two-men-at-a-time sprint through exposed terrain to the humvee that was supposed to be waiting just around the corner, a kind of mobile hesco. Just as I turned the corner the night was ripped open with muzzle flashes. We had been ambushed.
I had always had trouble differentiating between incoming and outgoing fire when I watched fighting from the comfortable confines of the sandbagged observation tower at Restrepo. On the ground I no longer had that problem. Incoming AK-47 fire is higher pitched and metallic sounding. It shatters the rocks above your head and showers you with their fragments. It kicks up clods of dirt in front of you. It makes you run faster than an Olympic sprinter, 30 lbs of body armor, darkness and rocky path be damned.