FORWARD OPERATING BASE NAWBAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban had set a trap for the tiny company of Afghan soldiers here, its handful of U.S. mentors and the American helicopters that they expected would rush in help.
Firing mortars to lure the Americans and Afghans out of their mud-straw base, the motorcycle-borne Taliban headed toward a nearby ravine. Dozens of insurgents with light machine guns, a recoilless rifle and four trucks bearing three anti-aircraft guns and a heavy machine gun were set up in a classic ambush from high ground.
U.S. and Afghan troops didn't take the bait, however, and instead waited in a village near the base for air cover. It arrived more quickly than the Taliban expected. Firing Hellfire missiles and 30 mm cannons, the pilots of two Apache helicopters made so many passes that they lost track and nearly ran out of ammunition. Afghan and U.S. ground troops then moved in to kill more.
At least 17 Taliban died in the fight Nov. 7, possibly as many as 20, according to pilots and Afghan soldiers, who think the Taliban took the other bodies. The Americans and Afghans suffered no losses.
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The base where the battle occurred is in eastern Zabul province, in a location so remote that U.S. soldiers there dubbed it "F.O.B. Nowhere." On Saturday, the U.S. Army had the two Apache pilots travel to the base to meet the Afghan and American soldiers on the ground, who'd prepared a celebratory feast of rice and goat. It was a rare chance for soldiers who see the fighting from different vantage points to share their experiences of the same battle.
The Afghan brigade commander, Maj. Gen. Jamall din Sayad, flew to give his congratulations Afghan-style, handing out cash rewards to the Afghan soldiers who'd distinguished themselves in the mop-up fight. Nearby sat a 25-foot table loaded with weapons and bomb-making parts captured in the battle. Beside it were two of the 8-foot-long anti-aircraft guns and a dozen Honda motorcycles that the Taliban fighters had been using.
The pilots, Capt. Kyle Maki, 25, of Memphis, Tenn., and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Keith Matz, 37, of Slippery Rock, Pa., mugged for pictures in the seats of the anti-aircraft guns, then checked out the austere fort, which was made of a mixture of mud and straw, was the size of a suburban yard and looked like a child's vision of the Alamo.
Everything, from food and water to people and fuel, has to be brought in by air, and without any senior officers around, hair gets a little long and some soldiers go for weeks without baths.
As Matz fired up a fat cigar, an Afghan sergeant dashed up to Maki and embraced him.
"Boom, boom, boom!" he shouted. "Shooting Taliban, it's very good!"
Then the pilots, who are members of the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, climbed a ladder to the Alamo-like ramparts and described the 6-foot flames that had been coming out of one of the anti-aircraft guns as it fired at them. The surprise to all was how professional the gunners seemed. One leapt down when his truck was hit, then jumped back onto the seat of the gun to fire more. It was the same for the surviving Taliban fighters.
Maki told McClatchy that usually when the Apaches attack, insurgents fire a few shots, throw down their guns and run. This time, they simply moved when he fired at them, took new positions and began firing again.
"They actually held their ground," he said. "It looked like they came looking for a fight."
"There were so many, it was like you had hit an ant nest," Matz added. "You'd see them scurry and reposition."
Second Lt. Christopher Goeke, 23, the commander of the U.S. trainers at the fort, who are members of the Army's Fort Bragg-based 82nd Airborne Division, said the Afghan soldiers had pushed forward eagerly for the fight, maybe too eagerly.
"I'm not sure we would have done what they did, but they aren't as well-trained as we are," said Goeke, who's from Apple Valley, Minn. "They were brave, though."
One of the dead insurgents appeared to be from a former Soviet bloc country, which would mean that the ambush included hard-core, experienced Taliban fighters.
"And they had more fire power than we'd ever seen before," Goeke said.
The Afghan soldiers pounced on the Taliban's bodies, checking pockets for a more immediate kind of cash reward for their work, several soldiers said, prompting the Afghans to laugh and jokingly pretend to check their own pockets.
One of them recovered a video camera, Goeke said, with tape in it that yielded some valuable intelligence. One segment, he said, showed what appeared to be the ambush group working itself into a frenzy for the battle. The men were clearly on drugs, he said.
The Taliban have intimidated villagers who live near the base to the point that they won't do anything to help the Afghan and U.S. soldiers, Goeke said, in one case even turning down a reconstruction project.
The Afghan army unit and an even smaller national police station next door_ also mentored by the Americans — are the only real representatives of the U.S.-supported national government for miles in any direction. If they'd been beaten, locals would have grown even more skeptical that they could offer protection from the insurgents.
Instead, though, word of a Taliban defeat spread in the villages and among the insurgents.
"We know from detainees that this loss is already well-known among the Taliban," said Lt. Col. David Oclander, 42, of Chicago, the battalion commander for the U.S. mentors at the base and one of the visiting officers.
"It's premature to say there's any sort of irreversible momentum, but with more victories like this, there's the chance to move toward that point where there is," he said. "This will send a huge message throughout the area. It will give the (Afghan soldiers) more confidence and give the people more confidence in them, and it also will undermine the confidence of the Taliban."
(Price reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer.)
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