As the attack was radioed in, we upped our pace to such a speed across the rugged terrain that I was thrown across the inside of our armored vehicle. Looking out of the tiny window to my side, all I could make out was a ridge of Afghan mountaintops see-sawing from side to side through a cloud of earth-colored dust. “Demon 26 this is Monkey 6,” the military radio was saying. “We’re still taking indirect, three o’clock at three hundred meters,” to which someone in our vehicle retorted on the internal channel: “Well, if you know where they are then fucking shoot them,” and to my surprise we burst into genuine but bravado-flushed laughter.
We were on our way to make contact with the elders of Saray village, which sits geographically at the top of a valley but temporally much further away, in the throes of something I would only recognize as medieval. Our 27-vehicle convoy was winding its way through the Lal Por District of Nangarhar Province in the far east of Afghanistan. It’s known to American forces and their allies as an insurgent infiltration route from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Once over the border the Taliban make their way north to resupply the insurgency in Kunnar Province, which sustains the heaviest fighting anywhere in Afghanistan other than Helmand and Kandahar.
Lal Por is scarcely populated, apart from along the banks of Kabul River that forms its southern boundary, and there is no tarmac road leading to the village that shares a name with the country’s capital. Until now, the Taliban have enjoyed free reign to pass through the desolate mountain ranges that cover most of the district.
The meeting lasted about 20 minutes and did little more than establish that the villagers seemed genuinely concerned about the Taliban presence. The lieutenant in charge promised them a well, but whether they’ll take him up on this is another matter. Like so many in isolated rural locations across Afghanistan, the villagers of Saray are stuck between the wrath of the Taliban and the suspicion of coalition military forces.
As the discussion came to a close and the group broke from the cover of a small line of trees where they had been taking shade, I couldn’t help but wonder whether such risk and expense had been worth it just to offer a well which may not be needed. But then I suspect the intention was every bit as much to send a message to the Taliban that they can’t move with impunity in the region.
Lal Por was one of many districts across Afghanistan where the Taliban did their best to disrupt the parliamentary elections last September, bombarding Afghan Police and United States military patrols with mortars from the hills north of its sleepy village capital.
The bombardment that I was caught in was the furthest south that the Taliban have attacked in this district since those elections but it was hardly a surprise; as two platoons, together with a mine-clearing unit, a quick reaction force and an Afghan army unit, we hardly looked subtle making our way up a valley into “coalition virgin territory.” The going was so tough that two vehicles were lost to mechanical failure, forcing lengthy pauses in the open valley as if to advertise our presence.
Intentional or not, the advert drew Taliban attention. Although some 25 mortars were fired at the convoy, together with heavy machine gun fire, none met their target.
In contrast, there were at least two confirmed hits on the Taliban before the arrival of air support prompted an effective disappearing act. The US officer in command told me he believed there were at least two Taliban killed in action and more wounded.
That’s certainly a message, but not necessarily the one the convoy was hoping to deliver.
ADAM PLETTS is a freelance
journalist currently embedded
with coalition forces in Afghanistan.