Jason Motlagh / San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service – 2008-12-11 22:17:14
JALREZ VALLEY, Afghanistan (December 11, 2008) — The engines rumbled awake at midnight.
Creeping out from a lonely hilltop outpost of dirt-filled blast barriers and razor wire, more than 40 US armored vehicles turn onto Afghanistan’s Highway One in blackout mode, switching off headlights to foil Taliban lookouts. Their destination: the Jalrez Valley, an ambush-ready stretch of fruit orchards and rocky slopes that cuts through restive Wardak province, 25 miles southwest of Kabul, the capital.
In the past year, the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Wardak have increased their attacks by 58 percent, the US military says. And with deadly frequency, the militants use the valley to launch attacks on Kabul and a national highway that is the economic lifeline to the southern part of the country.
As a result, they have made alarming gains in Wardak. A shadow Taliban government collects taxes and runs roadside checkpoints, according to intelligence reports and residents, while fighters — many of them foreign — are largely free to train and stash arms and kidnap victims with little interference.
The surging Taliban, the weakness of Afghan security forces, and the prospect of mass voter intimidation ahead of next year’s national elections have forced the US-led coalition to pay closer attention to Wardak, and in particular, the Jalrez Valley.
Firebase set up
In the spring, Lt. Larry Kay of the US Army’s 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry arrived in the valley to set up a firebase. For the next six months, he says, he never had a day off, beating back 27 attacks in June alone. Of the 70 men in his company, 30 have been wounded and two have been killed.
“The (insurgents) are very aggressive and highly trained, always ready to exploit a weakness,” said Kay, who is from Deerfield Beach, Fla. “You will not have an advantage in Jalrez.”
In late November, more than 400 battalion troops embarked on a disruptive operation into the Jalrez Valley from their base in western Paktika province. The long trip got off to a rough start. In neighboring Ghazni province, an improvised explosive device blew up under an Afghan police Ford Ranger pickup at the front of the convoy, killing two and wounding four. The $270 million US-funded highway that connects Kabul with the southern city of Kandahar looked like a vehicle graveyard — lined with burned-out delivery trucks scarred by bomb blasts.
It was still dark when the convoy reached the Jalrez Valley. Moving into defensive positions, American forces established a command perimeter in the village of Eshma-Kheyl in case of an insurgent attack.
“It’s almost too quiet,” said Capt. Spencer Wallace of McComb, Miss., while scanning the rows of adobe compounds. “They knew we were coming.”
As other platoons moved house-to-house to check for Taliban fighters, Wallace assembled a small group of tribal elders for a mini-shura, or meeting, in one of the elders’ carpeted living room. In the Pashtu language, he exchanged pleasantries with the bearded men, noting that it was the first time that his troops had entered the valley without coming under fire.
Village elder Zabiullah Ameri then assured Wallace that his village supports the Afghan government and welcomed the Americans as brothers. “Why, then, are there so many attacks against us in this valley?” Wallace asked.
“We are like a soccer ball. Everyone who comes through wants to kick us,” said another elder who wore a white head wrap. “We don’t know who is our enemy and who is our friend.”
The elders then guaranteed security of the US troops in Eshma-Kheyl, although they said they could not vouch for neighboring villages.
“It’s the same language all the time: ‘There’s no enemy here,’ ” Wallace later said. “People are just waiting to see which way the wind blows … We don’t hold that against them, understanding it as a characteristic of where they feel trapped.”
Later that day, intelligence reports indicated that several men in the area were known to harbor Taliban militants. Baker Company then fanned out to red-flag suspected safe houses and search for weapons caches. In a home owned by a man named Wazir, they found a book of telephone numbers and black-and-white photos that appeared to be of Taliban fighters. A plate of half-eaten rice suggested Wazir had left in a hurry.
Word soon arrived that a weapons cache of old grenades and rocket-propelled grenade fuses had been found in a shed at the edge of an apple orchard astride the paved valley road. Most had been destroyed, though some items were given to cash-strapped Afghan soldiers supporting the US operation.
“Counterinsurgency is about achieving effects on the battlefield every day,” said Lt. Col. Tony Demartino, the operation commander. “If you’re always looking for gold rings, you’re gonna continue to miss buckets of brass rings.”
Moments later, the crack of artillery in the distance interrupted what had been a quiet day. Alpha Company, which had been assigned to protect the southern ridge, had been targeted by two errant rockets. Rolling clouds and a flurry of snow signaled a fight was brewing, yet a nervous calm held. The soldiers spent the night in Eshma-Kheyl, officers sleeping on a villager’s living room floor, the soldiers in their vehicles.
The next morning brought a change of plans, and several unexpected visitors.
The 1st Battalion had planned to distribute food and winter clothes before returning to base at noon. But villagers panicked after an F-15 fighter jet flew low over the valley at about 500 feet. When an Afghan general who had been contacted by Demartino arrived, US officers put him in charge of handing out cooking oil, flour and sweaters. The general arrived with the new governor of Wardak province, Muhammad Halim Fedayi, who had decided to pay his first visit to the valley.
The governor, visibly ill at ease being so deep inside an insurgent stronghold, said a quick prayer to the crowd and pledged to do more to assert the state’s authority. Demartino then proposed that the governor make an impromptu visit to the district center a few miles down the road as a symbolic gesture. He agreed and stopped there for less than 10 minutes surrounded by US and Afghan soldiers. “Everybody appreciates a bit of security,” said Maj. Rob Fouche.
Meanwhile, some locals worried that any short-term presence by US troops might do more harm than good.
“We are scared because someone might tell the Taliban that we talked with the Americans and they will kill us,” said Delawar, 34, a truck driver from Eshma-Kheyl.
Muhammad Hosseini, a Jalrez Valley native who recently returned after spending five years in Manchester, England, lamented how dangerous the area has become.
US forces “are here now but they will be gone soon,” he said. “The Taliban will be back.”
E-mail Jason Motlagh at email@example.com.
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