On the Ground in Afghanistan, a Taliban Whose Momentum Seems Anything but Broken

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John Wendle

U.S. soldiers return fire as they are attacked by insurgents positioned on the mountainsides around Outpost Shal in Kunar province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 30, 2011

The hundreds of bullets, mortar shells and rockets that slammed into the boulders behind which they were taking cover peppered the men of 1st Platoon with high-velocity rock shards and jagged bits of shrapnel. Just below Outpost (OP) Shal, a newly constructed mountaintop aerie in Afghanistan's violent Kunar province on the Pakistani border, insurgent fighters were moaning and screaming from wounds suffered over eight days of heavy fighting. That scene, just three months ago, of the outnumbered American platoon fighting to maintain its foothold offered a sobering contrast to President Barack Obama's statement, in last week's State of the Union address: "The Taliban's momentum has been broken."

Like the battle scene witnessed by TIME, the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan reportedly also casts doubt on the confidence expressed by President Obama on the state of the Taliban's war effort. The top-secret assessment "takes a dim view of possible futures in Afghanistan," Reuters was told last week by a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity. The report, which represents the consensus view of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, warns that the Taliban has not given up on its aim of retaking full control of Afghanistan and concludes that the gains made by the troop surge ordered by President Obama two years ago may be unsustainable, according to McClatchy Newspapers.

The soldiers eventually won their battle at OP Shal, securing the Kunar River Valley from infiltration, eliminating insurgent roadblocks and opening it to civilian and military traffic. But the Taliban's weeklong attack highlighted the many military problems facing Afghanistan, and it made clear that the outcome of the conflict remains far from certain.

Throughout the intense fighting, the besieged defending force of 36 U.S. and Afghan army soldiers fought off multiple suicide bombers and at least four overrun attempts by between 400 and 500 heavily armed insurgents, who had been trucked in from Pakistan and who managed to advance to within 5 m of U.S. positions. Afterward, the soldiers said they confirmed 115 kills but estimated at least 200 deaths. "It was the most coordinated thing any of us had ever seen, but just the sheer number of forces they had massing on that position was ridiculous," Staff Sergeant Everett Bracey, of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2-27 Infantry Battalion, told TIME.

The attackers were reinforced and resupplied throughout the fight from bases and depots in the safe haven provided by Pakistan. "We saw 60 vehicles come out of Pakistan — just drive in," said Staff Sergeant Anthony Fuentes, looking at a topographical map a few days after the battle. "This whole route, it goes all the way up into Pakistan. It's a two-hour trafficable route from the border." Added company commander Captain Michael Kolton: "It was Pashtuns and Arabs and Chechens and Punjabis — everyone and their sister joined in on this one."

The defenders of OP Shal also recognized that their attackers had been well trained. "They used the standard operating procedures that the U.S. Army uses," explained Fuentes. "We expected contact, but we didn't expect that. Their fire was so heavy and precise that to get up and look at their near sector, the joes just had to say, 'O.K., I'm just going to eat one in the face just to get up and see if somebody is moving on me.' And every time they lifted their head up, there was somebody there."

Sitting in his squad bay at Combat Outpost Monti, Sergeant Brandon Goodell told TIME, "They are motivated, they are trained, and they are proficient." But what most surprised the Americans was the insurgents' determination to regain this strategic mountaintop commanding a 6-km section of road in the main Kunar River Valley. "They were relentless. They were all over us. I've never seen them come that hard at anybody," said Fuentes. The numbers, skill and determination of the insurgents repelled at OP Shal seem quite at odds with President Obama's suggestion that the Taliban's momentum has been broken.

"You'd kill 15 or 20 of them, and then five minutes later, there was another 15 or 20 of them trying to attack you again. I mean, we'd kill so many that we went black on ammo, pretty much, and we just had to stop and wait," said Goodell. "They're motivated. I tell my soldiers this exact same thing: If they were to come into our country, into the United States of America, and they were walking in your front yard, what would you do? Damn right I would fight you, and then I'd find all my friends and we'd fight you, and then I'd find their friends, and then we'd come and fight you. And after I died, my son and their sons and their friends' sons would all come fight you. Of course. We're in their backyard."