The Afghan Diaries: The Long Blooding of the 1-22 Infantry

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Nate Rawlings for TIME

Private First Class Mike Winkler and Private First Class Mike Crisafulli, Kandahar Province

The convoy finished snaking its way slowly though Kandahar city just after 10 p.m. From the only open seat in the middle of a supply truck cab, I could see little other than broken roads and tiny trees until finally the driver cut to the left, over what looked like a small concrete footbridge with culverts on either side.

My heart stopped for a moment. This was just the type of spot where we used to find IEDs in Iraq. But the trucks passed over the narrow clip without incident and rolled into a small base known as ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) that also contains the headquarters of 1-22 Infantry. A sergeant who was bundled up against the cold led me through a dark maze to a small building and I immediately recognized the blue and white shield on the plywood door: the regimental crest of the 22nd Infantry. It was painted on the entrance to the tactical operations center, the brain stem for planning and resourcing the Regulars' operations in what is now the fourth chapter of the unit's nearly decade-long chronicle of war.

The Regulars' deployments began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. when the unit's B Company was sent to Guantanamo Bay to guard prisoners from new battlefields in Afghanistan. In 2003, the Regulars, along with the rest of the 4th Infantry Division, were supposed to invade Iraq through Turkey, but when the Turkish government refused to allow an invasion from its borders, they moved through Kuwait and reached Baghdad after the collapse of the Iraq regime.

The Regulars occupied Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, in April 2003. 1-22 attacked Saddam's network like the FBI pursues the mafia, capturing low-level associates and working their way up through the ranks to Saddam himself. Special Forces Commandos pulled Saddam from his spider hole in December 2003 largely thanks to months of work by 1-22 soldiers. During 12 months in Tikrit, the Regulars lost nine soldiers to the growing Sunni insurgency.

I joined 1-22 as a young lieutenant in April 2005, just as the battalion was preparing to return to Iraq. From December 2005 to December 2006, the Regulars would be split up, shifted around, and moved from southern to western Baghdad, serving under seven higher headquarters as units rotated in and out of the war. Before shipping out, we were told ours would be the last big push to secure Baghdad before the war ended for good. That changed in February 2006, after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shi'ite shrines in Iraq. As a sectarian civil war slowly erupted, the Regulars made headlines again, this time for having the highest casualties of any unit in Iraq or Afghanistan that fall as 11 soldiers were killed in five bloody weeks. By the time 1-22 rotated home to America at the beginning of the Surge, 19 Regulars had been killed and over 100 wounded.

When we returned to Baghdad in early 2008, the city was different. There was still fighting and reconstruction work ahead, but it was apparent that the Surge had done its job. The Regulars patrolled West Rashid, an area of 300,000 people near the Baghdad airport. Initial fighting gave way to nation building as the Regulars built schools and sewers, installed generators, and opened a hospital. Three Regulars died in the battalion's third tour.

In the summer of 2009, 1-22 moved to Fort Carson, Colorado and in January 2010 received word they would deploy to Afghanistan. As late as two months before they shipped out, the Regulars thought they were going to Zabul Province, but in May 2010 they found out they would be operating in Kandahar.

Prior to mid-2010, the only NATO force in Kandahar was a small set of Canadian soldiers. Then in the spring of last year, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne set up a security ring, a series of checkpoints, around Kandahar city to block Taliban movement in the area. In July, shortly before the Regulars shipped out from Colorado, Taliban insurgents breached the wall at the ANCOP outpost, killing three U.S. paratroopers and wounding 13.

The ANCOP station is the home base of a brigade of Afghan National Civilian Order Police, a supplemental police force sent down from Kabul to help with security in Kandahar. When 1-22 arrived, they immediately fortified the small base's walls and partnered more heavily with their ANCOP counterparts, while troops from the battalion's four line companies pushed out to tiny outposts that comprise the security ring. Conditions were Spartan: during two of the hottest months of the year, August and September, most of the Regulars did not have working showers, and once they got showers installed, there was no hot water. But creature comforts were hardly the focus.

Ten days after the Regulars took over their area, they embarked on a 14-day offensive mission to clear the Taliban from the village of Malajat, just south of Kandahar city. "The enemy is punching, so let's punch back and punch big," Maj. David Sandoval, 1-22's operations officer says describing the first operation. On August 30, two Regulars were killed and one wounded by a pressure plate IED in the village. The clearance proceeded, but failed to completely rid Malajat of deadly threats.

On Sept. 15, children in Malajat who were playing outside set off another pressure plate IED, killing two kids and injuring another. The next day, local leaders, alarmed by the incident and angry that their children had been put at risk by Taliban bombs, offered to bring American and ANCOP troops to all of the hidden IEDs around the village. "It's one thing to feel passive in your house, but another when the threat is outside as well," Sandoval says. "Unfortunately, it took an event like that to show them that being passive wasn't going to work."

American troops paid restitution to the Afghan family that had lost its children, even though the soldiers were not at fault. Using the information from the locals, the troops cleared nine IEDs the Taliban had hidden to attack U.S. and ANCOP forces. Then the Afghan Police led one more, smaller operation in Malajat to capitalize on the local's newfound trust and cleared the area of Taliban. Since October, the village and most of Kandahar have remained quiet.

The challenge for the Regulars and their Afghan counterparts now is to maintain that local trust and cooperation into the spring fighting season. To accomplish this, they are putting more focus on partnering each company commander, not only with a counterpart from the ANCOP and local police, but also with managers from each Kandahar sub district. Although violence is likely to increase in the spring, the Regulars hope that their work this winter will set conditions to mitigate, and eventually stem, the bloodshed in Kandahar. "We ask ourselves, what opportunities do we have to not have someone come back here in the future," Sandoval says. "We're hoping that the next guys after us close the deal."