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Uptick in Afghan attacks tests US forces

In a remote corner of Afghanistan, winning hearts and minds is proving difficult.

On May 8, one of Bravo troop’s platoons was ambushed. Around the same time, the local Afghan army commander hit an IED. A week later, Camp Wilderness was hit with twelve 107-millimeter rockets.

A few days after the attack, Lt. Joe Witcher led 19 soldiers from Bravo Company’s 1st platoon, and a squad of Afghan army soldiers, into the area to look for the rocket launching site in Gerdai Serai district, near a village called Haqi Kalay. They found nothing. But within five minutes of leaving the village, bullets began pinging off the armored vehicles.

Eight minutes into the ambush, the Afghan army soldiers still wouldn’t return to their trucks. The lieutenant wanted the convoy to move forward so they could maneuver on the ambushers. The American troopers called in mortars, artillery and air support. The Afghans eventually got back into their trucks, and the Americans tried to maneuver on the shooters. But by the time they moved, the attackers vanished.

Witcher wasn’t surprised the ambush took place near Haki Kalay. The area is strongly suspected of being a staging ground for the Taliban and its allies. He says either because of intimidation or support, the people in the village are helping the militants.

Three days after the attack, Witcher and Bravo troops commander, Capt. Jarrad Glasenapp, had the opportunity to confront village elders from the area. Every week, the officers meet with the local “shura,” which is basically the Afghan equivalent of a county board of commissioners. Witcher had low expectations for the meeting, in part because the Taliban have scared many people in this area into submission.

“We have reports that 10 to 15 [Taliban] have been coming to the local villages,” Witcher said before the meeting. “At the local shura three weeks ago, no elders showed up, and … we heard the Taliban had said if you attend local government meetings then we will kill you.”

The Taliban followed through on those threats in a neighboring district in late May. They killed six elders who refused to cooperate.

Due to its remote location and small population, the people of Haqi Kalay, like many small hamlets in these mountains, may not see the results of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy of securing the population for some time, if ever. The strategy focuses on making cities and other larger population centers safer as the key to winning over the Afghan people. That means places like Haki Kalay are secondary to the overall effort.