Connect to share and comment
An ambush at day's end reveals flaws in counterinsurgency strategy used in Afghanistan war.
COMBAT OUTPOST MIZAN, Afghanistan — This combat outpost is a village in itself, with a platoon each of American soldiers, Afghan soldiers and Afghan police nestled in a verdant valley surrounded by high peaks, barren and forbidding.
The American unit at Mizan — 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2/2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment — has been here for four months and have about eight to go before they head back to their base in Germany.
It’s easy to tell who is the incoming platoon leader and who is the outgoing — at breakfast 2nd Lt. Dave Anderson is wearing a clean, complete uniform, while 1st Lt. Troy Peterson, who has been with 3rd Platoon for a year, is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a cap, as most of the men are.
Peterson carries himself with the confident swagger of a man who is responsible for a difficult mission and the lives of 30 men. Anderson looks younger and weighs less than almost all of the soldiers under his command. The Fox Company commander, Capt. Charles Wall, is along but makes it clear that it is the lieutenants’ mission.
The mission begins
At 3 a.m. on a pitch-dark night, Anderson and Peterson led nearly everyone at Mizan over “Route Goat” — a relentlessly steep gravel slide leading to the high pass looming over the outpost to the south.
In the quiet darkness, soldiers carrying radios, machine guns, grenades, trauma bags, belts of grenades, gallons of water, body armor and tremendous amounts of ammunition scramble up the mountain grunting, cursing, sliding on the gravel and crashing through low brambles that stab through pants and boots.
Only a goat can use this route regularly, hence the name.
Like troops virtually everywhere in Afghanistan, soldiers in the Mizan Valley face an uphill battle, sometimes literally, to expand their “sphere of influence,” a central goal of the U.S.-led coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy, which prioritizes the building of relationships and the strengthening of local governments.
Some of the soldiers here think it is too soon for such a strategy to work in Afghanistan — that troops need to focus all their efforts on security now. It’s an opinion that will be made all the more cogent as the day’s mission wears on.
And not unlike the Americans, Afghans living in and around Mizan show an interest in establishing local governance but for them their fear of the Taliban still comes first.
All of Anderson and Peterson’s troops are at the top of the pass just as the sun rises, revealing tiny homes far below, deep in the crooks of the mountains, and children waking up in unimaginable isolation. Out across a flat desert plain is a swath of vegetation following a seasonal stream, with mud walled compounds amid the trees — this village is their destination. Just beyond the village stands another towering mountain range.
The previous tenants of Mizan, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, ventured over this mountain, got into a wild firefight and were pinned down for 10 hours. That patrol consisted of only 20 American soldiers. There is three times that many on the ground this time.
The Afghan soldiers, who carry far less equipment than the Americans, are first across the plain and shots immediately echo off the mountains all around us. The Afghan troops have spotted two men fleeing up the far slopes and are shooting first and asking questions later. It appears the men get away but no one will be sure until all hell breaks lose later in the afternoon.
When the Americans arrive in the village, the Afghan National Army commander has all the local men sit together to his left. One by one, he calls men to come speak to him. His line of questioning is simple and his methods direct — each village man is slapped and shaken, and asked if they are a jihadi. They are then sent to sit on the ground to the commander’s right.