ASMAR, Afghanistan — When the young American lieutenant and his 14 soldiers glanced up at the rock face, they thought that the major who'd planned the mission must have been kidding.
Elijah Carlson, a strapping, blue-eyed Southern Californian and a self-proclaimed "gun nut," gripped the crumbling rock, tugged backward by 90-pounds of ammunition and gear. "If we fall back, we are dead!" he whispered to Lt. Jake Kerr, the platoon leader.
In seconds, a rock shot loose beneath one soldier's boot and dropped 20 feet onto another soldier below, sending him tumbling 15 feet to the base and cracking his bulletproof side plate.
What transpired over the next 16 hours was the kind of clash that's led Kerr's commanders in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., to conclude that there's no "victory" waiting around the next bend in Afghanistan, only a relentless struggle with a fleet-footed, clever enemy. For Kerr, a recent West Point graduate who specialized in counterinsurgency, it was the first face-off with an often-elusive opponent and a case study in the complex politics of rural Afghanistan.
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Kunar, where Combat Company of the 1st Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division's 32nd Infantry Regiment is stationed, is one of the most violent provinces in Afghanistan. Asmar is just 10 miles from the border with Pakistan's Bajaur Tribal Agency, which has been a sanctuary for al Qaida and Afghan Taliban leaders.
The mission was to disrupt the men and weapons infiltrating from Pakistan and root out their staging bases in Afghanistan. The Americans had hoped first to confer with village elders, but after intelligence indicated that insurgents were in the area, they moved in with heavy machine guns.
Kerr's platoon moved for three hours in the darkness. Each time they thought they'd reached the peak, the land shot up farther. The unit came across enemy fighting positions, piled high with rocks and littered with food wrappers.
Afghan and American intelligence reports said these were "Bakt Ali's men," insurgents who lay claim to nearby villages in central Kunar. Ali is a senior Taliban guerrilla leader in Kunar who's thought to have direct ties to Abu Ikhlas al Masri, an Egyptian al Qaida leader in Pakistan. At each dug-in position, Kerr recorded the GPS coordinates of unmanned enemy positions, down to the 10th digit.
As dawn broke over the rocks, company commander Maj. Andy Knight, of Ann Arbor, Mich., set out on foot in the valley 700 feet below. Kerr would provide support from his eagles' nests as Knight attempted to clear two villages where, he said, residents had complained of insurgent intimidation. Accompanied by a reporter, Knight and a detachment of American and 14 Afghan soldiers stepped carefully along mud dikes, greeting Afghan children and their parents with a cordial "Sengay?" — "How are you?"
What Kerr, from Lake Placid, N.Y., heard from his perch above the valley was a surprise: Unseen men along the valley floor were shouting to one another like an oral tag team, passing the news that "the Americans have arrived."
Within minutes, three men, one in a white shalwar kamis — a loose pajama-like shirt and pants — another in a black one and a third in a brown shawl and gray pants, sprinted down the valley from the west with machine guns toward Knight's patrol, which was walking along a dry, rocky streambed about 1,000 feet away.
Kerr, 25, part of a new generation of American warriors schooled at West Point in the raw lessons of fighting counterinsurgencies in the Islamic world, spotted them instantly.
"They were running at Major Knight with AK-47s," Kerr said after the battle. "We opened up on them, and they began firing. But we had the three men outgunned, and they dove for cover in the streambed."
In the valley, the hiking party splashed through irrigation channels and dove for cover amid tall bushes that lined the stream. The chatter of machine guns fired from both sides echoed off the ridges and stone walls.
Knight, who played tight end on the Army football team, shot past in a blur to the front of the marching party. He didn't yet know that two of the insurgents had been hit. They were pulling themselves on their bellies through the rocks, desperate to reach a bend in the stream.
Within five minutes, two Apache attack helicopters buzzed the valley, scanning for enemy positions and listening to Kerr direct them to the target. "I was shooting tracers down at the two fighters crawling in the stream, and the other man in a brown shawl was shooting back," Kerr said.
Hidden behind a wooden shack, Knight's party could see the two Apaches sweep down, ripping up the stream bed. The insurgents had slipped just out of Kerr's sight, however, back up a bend in the stream and away from Knight's party. When the Apaches unleashed their Hellfire missiles, the men already had vanished.
"Dawg 1,6!" Knight snapped into his radio to Lt. David Poe, 24, of Buffalo, N.Y., a few hundred yards away, as he crouched in the rocks. "Are you near the woman in the green dress, tending to the animals? We are moving towards your location."
Almost all the males in the valley had gone missing, but Afghan women were trying to keep spooked cows and goats from fleeing. As Knight's party climbed into the rocks above the stream and dashed along the mountainside, a woman in a black shawl appeared, waving her arms and wailing, berating U.S. and Afghan forces as they passed. An Afghan soldier shouted back, incorrectly, "Back in your house, lady! They shot first!"
Knight stopped to catch his breath. "Do we have maps of these villages?" he demanded of Lt. Eric Forcey, 23, of Lynchburg, Va., who was at his side.
"No, sir," Forcey replied. "For all intents and purposes, they do not exist."
"I think they've existed for a long time, Forcey; the mapmakers just have not found them," the major replied.
WIth "shhh-thwamps, shhh-thwamps," two more Hellfire missiles crashed into the rocks.
With constant translations of the enemy radio chatter in Pashtu, picked up through electronic eavesdropping, and the major's narration of the battle, events appeared to turn. "I think one of them is badly injured," Knight speculated. "They will have to make a decision to drag him out or leave him."
The U.S. forces, augmented by the 14 Afghans, were deliberate, at times cumbersome. From above, Kerr's men heard radio traffic indicating that the insurgents had slipped into a larger village farther up the ravine.
Enemy radio chatter also indicated that the helicopter strikes were landing just in front of the house from which Bakt Ali's men apparently were talking.
Still, this was a shell game with no certainty about the targets' whereabouts, and Knight — who spent a year in Kunar in 2006 and 2007 — knew it. He refused to order an airstrike on the suspected hideout.
Instead, he took Kerr's plea over the radio that, "We can own this valley, sir!" He ordered two Humvees to rush up the stream bed and take up "support-by-fire" positions in front of a group of wooden houses and dispatched Dawg Company's Poe to oversee a group of Afghan commandos, who'd search the village on foot.
The choppers returned from refueling. Once in the village, the Afghan soldiers went house to house, room by room. A cluster of women and children stood on a rooftop. "This is a virtual ghost town, sir," came Poe's report. An Afghan interpreter sniped: "It almost always ends this way."
Kerr and his men were tired and frustrated. No one had found the fugitives' "blood trails," which he'd hoped to follow.
As his men packed in their heavy weapons and began to pull back down the mountain, the insurgents' radio traffic intensified.
"We could hear them actually counting our numbers, and they were saying that they would hit us. A commander told them to wait until we were grouped." The insurgents apparently wanted to target only the departing forces and to avoid destroying the village.
Kerr's team hiked back down the ridgeline, descended about 1,000 feet into the riverbed, linked up with Knight's fighters in U.S. jeeps and reached for water bottles.
Suddenly, an Afghan interpreter, monitoring radio traffic, heard Bakt Ali's commander order the attack. Kerr dove for cover. The pavement exploded with rocket blasts and fire from massive PK machine guns. Carlson, 23, from Torrance, Calif., dropped to his knees, curling into a fetal position under a dirt ledge with his machine gun trained on the crest of the mountain he'd scaled earlier. One U.S. soldier was hit in the groin as he leapt for cover.
Kerr's platoon's work was about to pay dividends, however.
With a rush of satisfaction, Kerr reached into his pocket and pulled out the GPS coordinates of the enemy positions he'd scribbled down that morning. From six miles away at their base in Asmar, a 10th Mountain artillery battery unleashed a torrent of 105 mm howitzer shells onto the enemy positions. In the twilight, .50-caliber machine guns blazed.
The day was over. No one was going back to hunt for the living or the dead. The insurgents had lost fighters, but they'd proved to be a wily, disciplined and mobile force.
The U.S. and Afghan forces had had a reality check. If they didn't already know it, they now understood why they'd been unable to have a peaceful discussion with the village elders. Bakt Ali's forces owned the villages, and until last Thursday, they more or less controlled the entire ravine. It would take more than better maps for the Afghan army and its U.S. allies to wrest control of them.
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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