By Scott Baldauf, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
QALAT, AFGHANISTAN - It's mid- morning on June 21, and Lt. Timothy Jon O'Neal's platoon has just been dropped onto a dusty field north of a mud-walled village of Chalbar. Their mission: to check out reports that a local Afghan Army commander has defected to the Taliban and burned the district headquarters, and is prepared to fight.
Within minutes, it becomes clear that the reports are true, and the platoon is in trouble. The radio crackles with Taliban fighters barking orders to surround the Americans. Gunfire comes from the hilltops. Lieutenant O'Neal's men are easy targets. The Taliban have the high ground.
* * *
This has been the most violent year here since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The US Army is moving in smaller numbers to lure the Taliban out of hiding for fights they cannot win. The result: More than 1,200 enemy deaths this year, including high-level commanders. But it is also a strategy with profound risks, and one that may be difficult to sustain in Zabul Province - a region so unstable that commanders call it the "Fallujah of Afghanistan" - as current troops return home, their replacements as yet undecided.
Through interviews with soldiers of Chosen Company, of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the Monitor has reconstructed two recent battles that illustrate how this strategy works, and how it may have weakened the Taliban movement's effectiveness as a military force - for now.
* * *
As the Taliban start shooting, O'Neal's platoon scurries for cover. But there's no panic. "They think, without a doubt, they have us outnumbered," recalls O'Neal, a native of Jeannette, Pa., and leader of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company. "We've got only 23 people on the ground, and I would say the Taliban had over 150 before the day was over."
But O'Neal and his men are not alone. Just to the south, 1st platoon is clearing a village; to the east, the 3rd platoon are marching toward Chalbar. O'Neal's platoon calls for close air support from nearby Apache helicopters. But on the ground, 2nd platoon will have to hold its own, and fight for every inch - uphill.
Much is made about the high-tech gear that US soldiers carry: body armor, rapid-firing machine guns, night vision goggles. But the chief advantage of the US military - especially in a low-intensity conflict, pitted against a crudely trained force like the Taliban - is training and air power.
Taliban fighters, meanwhile, appear to gain courage from numbers, the ability to swarm a smaller enemy unit. A sense of safety in numbers, however, is often the Taliban's undoing if a US platoon can fix an enemy's position long enough for aircraft or other infantry units to arrive. This is the backbone of US military strategy in Zabul, and one reason why the Taliban have lost so many fighters this year.
"We've had a lot of success with textbook tactics, getting the smallest element engaged, and then using other assets to just pile on," says O'Neal. "The Taliban are more willing to engage with us when we have smaller numbers."
Not Taliban bait
Lt. Col. Mark Stammer, the commander at Forward Operating Base in Qalat, is quick to clarify that the US Army is not using small units as "bait."
"I've never sent a squad in as bait," says Colonel Stammer, a native of Redfield, S.D. "I'm sure that it has emboldened the Taliban to attack. But there's no fight where our squads have made contact and lost. Whenever the Taliban fight us, they're decimated."
Darting from boulder to boulder, Sgt. Justin Hormann, a native of Melbourne, Fla., is leading a team of about six men up the hill, just behind 1st squad leader, Staff Sgt. Michael Christian of Montrose, Pa. Above them, about 50 Taliban fighters are raining down a torrent of gunfire with their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.
Sergeant Christian reaches a shallow plateau on the hill, and pulls himself up to establish a fire position. Almost immediately, he's shot. He crouches behind a boulder and shouts out, "I'm hit." The Talib who shot him is barely 30 feet away.
Sergeant Hormann can see his squad leader is bleeding and needs immediate help. "When he got hit, they were right in front of us," recalls Hormann, while on break between missions at the Forward Operating Base at Qalat. "He could see the fighter in front of him, but he couldn't see the Taliban who was just alongside him."
Hormann makes a snap decision: He bounds up the hill to give Christian first aid. "I said 'to heck with it.' I just ran up," says Hormann. All around him, Taliban bullets continue to ping off rocks as Hormann applies a tourniquet. Under constant fire, he sets up Bravo team to deliver suppressing fire, while he and Alpha team carry Christian off the hill. At the bottom, he regroups the squad for another assault.
"And then we all went back up the hill a second time," says Hormann, who was recently awarded a Bronze Star with valor for his actions that day. For the next four hours, Hormann and a 10-man ad hoc squad move back up the mountain within 60 feet of the enemy. Only when Pfc. Joseph Lorman of Sloughhouse, Calif., is wounded in the neck and shoulder does Hormann move the squad back down the mountain.
By that time, reinforcements from the 1st and 3rd platoons have arrived. All escape routes are blocked. The Taliban are trapped.
"The fire was extremely close," says O'Neal, who was with a second team providing covering fire lower down the hill. "But toward the end it got dark, so we just ran to the bottom."
As night falls, American AC-130 Specter gunships arrive to engage Taliban fighters who have also decided to make a run for it. By the end of the day, 76 Taliban bodies are counted, and another nine Taliban fighters are captured.
To this day, the men of the 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company, can't figure out what the Taliban were thinking. Were they suicidal? Why did they gather so many Taliban in one place? Did they really think they had enough men to defeat the Americans?
"They called the BBC to tell them they had taken the district headquarters," says O'Neal. "They knew we were going to come."
* * *
It's been just over a month since the men of 2nd Platoon, Chosen (Few) Company, were in a battle with the Taliban.
O'Neal and his men are in Kandahar, on call as a quick-reaction force, when they get a call to deploy. They catch helicopters to Uruzgan, a region that has been a headquarters of sort for Taliban remnants. Their mission is to clear the village of Siahchow, where US Special Forces units have taken fire from an unknown number of Taliban fighters. The Special Forces will continue to block escape routes, while O'Neal's men take the village, one building at a time.
"The whole purpose of an infantry is to close in on the enemy and finish them off," says Capt. Eric Gardiner, commander of Chosen Company in Qalat. "Here in Afghanistan, we've had over 75 percent of our contacts within hand grenade range."
Missions like this one, with its elements of intense urban warfare, test an infantryman like no other. The closest comparison to what is about to happen in Siahchow is what one occasionally sees in the street battles of Iraqi towns like Fallujah, Ramadi, or Najaf. But Siahchow has another hazard: a fruit orchard in the center of town, with hiding places for the enemy.
Spc. Christopher Velez, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is in the lead squad, says he senses something is wrong. Normally, children come up to American soldiers, asking for candy or pens. Here, there is nobody. Even the roosters are silent.
The village follows the shape of the valley: narrow at one end, and then opening up, with houses along the outskirts. The men begin to search each of those houses, north to south. Specialist Velez's team searches houses. Sergeant Hormann and his men line up shoulder to shoulder and search the orchard.
The Taliban are there. "We are close enough that we could hear their movements," says Hormann. "We could see the hand of some guy reaching for his weapon."
A fierce gun battle breaks out with eight Taliban fighters in the orchard. Hormann and his team leader, Sgt. DaWayne Krepel, and his team maneuver around the Taliban. The firefight lasts an intense 15 minutes; Sergeant Krepel kills two enemy fighters just two feet away.
House to house
Lieutenant O'Neal hears the gunfire nearby, but continues with his objective of clearing houses.
For the most part, the Taliban are poorly trained, firing wildly enough that they can't hit American soldiers even at close range. "If we were that far from you," Velez says, pointing at a table just 10 feet away, "and I missed you, I would be upset at myself."
...The mission turns deadly...
Report on roadside bombs
By THOMAS WAGNER, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A day after releasing new casualty figures showing that October was the fourth deadliest month for U.S. forces in the Iraq war, the military issued a report Tuesday showing how hard it can be to prevent the deadliest form of attack: roadside bombs.
The report, summarizing combat operations in and around Baghdad over a five-day period, said U.S. forces had found several powerful roadside bombs hidden in two vehicles on Saturday.
The day before, soldiers caught three suspected insurgents planting a bomb along a street and defused it before it could be used in an attack. On Thursday, a roadside bomb exploded, damaging a U.S. patrol, and when its soldiers chased three Iraqi men into a nearby home, they found it contained more bomb-making materials, the military said.
On Monday, the U.S. command reported that seven American service members were killed, six on Monday and one on Sunday. All of them were victims of increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs that have become the deadliest weapon in the insurgents' arsenal.
The new deaths made October the fourth deadliest month for troops here since the war began. A powerful roadside bomb also exploded on Monday among civilians in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and the major metropolis of the Shiite-dominated south, which has witnessed less violence than Sunni areas.
On Tuesday, Basra police raised the casualty figures to 20 dead and 71 wounded. The attack occurred along a bustling street packed with shops and restaurants as people were enjoying an evening out after the daily Ramadan fast.
In new attacks on Tuesday, two roadside bombs exploded, one in Baghdad and one south of the capital, killing a police officer and wounding three Iraqis, officials said.
On a road near Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, a suicide attacker with explosives hidden beneath his clothes lunged at a police patrol that had been slowed by traffic, wounding the city's police commander, Col. Khatab Rash, and his driver, police said.
Military commanders have warned that Sunni insurgents will step up their attacks in the run-up to the Dec. 15 election, when Iraqis will choose their first full-term parliament since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
To guard against such attacks, the military has raised the number of American troops in Iraq to 157,000 — among the highest levels of the Iraq conflict.
Most of the combat deaths and injuries in recent months have been a result of the increasing use by insurgents of sophisticated homemade bombs. The military refers to those bombs as "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs.
Last Friday, an IED killed Col. William W. Wood, 44, of Panama City, Fla. an infantry battalion commander. He was promoted posthumously, making him the highest-ranking soldier killed in action in the Iraq conflict, according to the Pentagon.
"We see an adversary that continues to develop some sophistication on very deadly and increasingly precise stand-off type weapons — IEDs, in particular," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters Monday.
The insurgents continually search for new and more effective ways to use IEDs, Di Rita said, while U.S. forces look for new ways to counter the threat.
"We're getting more intelligence that's allowing us to stop more of these things, find more of them. So we're learning from them and the enemy is learning from us, and it's going to be that way for as long as there is an insurgency," he said.
Monday's deadliest attack against U.S. service members came in an area known as the "triangle of death." Four soldiers from the U.S. Army's Task Force Baghdad died when their patrol struck a roadside bomb in Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad.