GONDALABUK, Afghanistan — A platoon from the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment and another from the Illinois Army National Guard drove up the lone road into the village of Doab in 16 Humvees, accompanied by four truckloads of Afghan police officers and soldiers on an "overnight patrol."
For the first 20 hours, all had gone smoothly.
It wasn't until midnight on the day they'd arrived last month in the isolated village that translators listening to three languages — Dari, Kata and Pashai — heard chatter that indicated that insurgents were preparing an ambush.
Despite the presence of a mobile Afghan army overwatch position above the platoon, dozens of insurgents converged from neighboring valleys without being detected, even by the aerial drones tasked with monitoring such movements.
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Local police official Gul Said, who was manning a checkpoint north of town, recounted that some 300 Taliban fighters had tried to reach the village that morning. Many of them simply hiked from their homes up the mountain overlooking the police headquarters and newly U.S.-built town meeting hall in which the Americans were meeting their Afghan colleagues.
As they packed their surveillance and radio gear the next morning, Navy Cmdr. Caleb Kerr, 36, who heads the local reconstruction team, smiled at playful children and bade farewell to the district's Afghan police chief.
At 11:15 a.m., just after the U.S. aircraft had left the scene to refuel, the insurgents, now holed up in bunkers, began to rain down rocket, mortar and machine-gun fire on the Americans.
Sgt. Mike Mathews, 24, who's from Chicago, hastily unpacked his mortar system, but enemy fire blasted his legs out from under him. 1st Lt. Dashielle Ballarta sprinted over to help.
As medics assisted two wounded soldiers, the lieutenant grabbed the mortar and took aim at the mountainside. "I was shooting directly at the mountain, but I had no way to calculate the distance with any precision," Ballarta said.
The medics treated Mathews and the other wounded soldier, but insurgents soon opened up from the opposite mountainside, as well. This time, a pair of snipers had been waiting for Ballarta and the medics to move to one side of their Humvees.
Some U.S. officers said they thought that the insurgents couldn't have taken up their positions without the knowledge and complicity of local Afghan officials. Gul agreed, but claimed that the police — whom the Taliban had warned not to help the Americans — were powerless to intervene. He said that the Americans had walked into an ambush that most officials in town, but not the foreigners, saw coming.
After seven years of careful observation, Taliban insurgents have learned a great deal about how U.S. forces move.
Over the next five hours, three insurgent commanders who were working for Taliban commander Maulavi Qadir, with an estimated six dozen fighters, ambushed the Americans at three locations along a road with sheer drop-offs of 1,000 feet.
When U.S. commanders realized that the Taliban had the high ground, they knew they had to leave their vulnerable position as quickly as possible.
The convoy moved down the road toward a designated landing zone beneath a torrent of gunfire. A huge boulder blocked its movement, and the Americans had to settle for a makeshift landing zone in a large wheat field, where a helicopter could send down a harness.
There, too, they took fire, "this time on the retaining wall above the heads of the wounded soldiers," said Lt. Col. Sal Petrovia, 36, an Ohioan who commands Ballarta's battalion.
Medics covered the bodies of the two wounded soldiers with their own, and the rescue chopper had to back away while Petrovia called in two Apache attack helicopters to suppress the enemy fire.
The fighting continued as the American convoy snaked away, Humvees limping along with blown-out tires and dragging a disabled vehicle. The insurgents passed word of the convoy's movements down the Doab valley.
They moved in for a final assault as bullets and rockets pummeled the road that American engineers have tried for months, through Afghan contractors, to widen and improve.
They rocketed a disabled Humvee that had four soldiers in it but would soon be abandoned. Its 3-inch-thick windows shattered as more rounds ricocheted off the armor.
An unmanned drone fired a Hellfire missile, and an Apache was ordered to destroy the disabled Humvee to prevent the Taliban or al Qaida from gaining access to sensitive military information.
At 8 p.m., well after sunset, the U.S. convoy limped back onto its base at Kalagush.
Commanders said they'd been surprised by the weaponry and the number of insurgents who'd attacked them in Doab. "I was surprised, but in another sense I was disappointed," Kerr said.
No Afghan official in Doab had warned the Americans. Kerr and his fellow commanders said they'd known that they were in enemy territory but that they hadn't expected the Taliban to be so well-entrenched or so well-organized. They vowed to return with heavier firepower and more development assistance.
The leaders of the U.S. contingent would boast that "we kicked some ass up there," but the insurgents could claim victory; dancing on the shattered remains of a U.S. Humvee and vowing on their radios to keep the Americans from establishing a foothold north of their base.
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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