The Sunday Times, Combat Outpost Monti, Kunar Province
Specialist Alexander Miller had been watching a mysterious Afghan standing in a cornfield for 20 minutes. But it took only a split second for the American soldier to be mortally wounded.
As Miller turned his back momentarily, the Afghan picked up a weapon hidden at his feet and fired a burst. One of the rounds tore into the 21- year-old soldier’s groin. Troops rushed to apply pressure to the wound as they called in a helicopter, but he was dead on arrival at the nearest field hospital.
Miller, a keen roller-hockey player with a goofy smile, left behind a girlfriend in Clermont, Florida. He was one of three American soldiers killed in the battle for Barji Matal, a village in the eastern province of Nuristan that nestles in a fertile valley surrounded by the barren peaks of the Hindu Kush.
Nuristan’s rugged landscape, dotted with stone huts encircled by farmland, formed the backdrop to Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Man Who Would Be King, written when the province was still called Kafiristan or “Land of the Infidels” for its struggle to resist the spread of Islam. American commanders say little has changed since the story was written: the province’s clans still retain a fierce independence.
US troops clash daily with Taliban militants over control of this isolated region on the Pakistan border. But as President Barack Obama reconsiders his overall strategy in Afghanistan, military officials on the ground are questioning the purpose of sending soldiers into sparsely populated areas such as Barji Matal when the army lacks the resources to hold on to them. They argue that such battles reduce the military’s capacity to conduct counterinsurgency operations along the porous border with Pakistan.
It was in mid-July that President Hamid Karzai asked for 100 American soldiers to go to the village after Taliban militants overran it.
The soldiers believed they could secure Barji Matal within a week, allowing 500 farmers to return to their work in the flour mill and cornfields. But the date for their withdrawal came and went with soldiers bogged down in close-quarter combat. One was killed instantly when a Taliban fighter popped up 10 yards ahead of his position and loosed off a burst of machinegun fire.
“We made the decision to stay to ensure that we didn’t spend all that money, blood, sweat and tears for nothing,” said Captain Albert Bryant, commanding officer of C Company in the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division.
The battle, in which dozens of soldiers were wounded, proved so severe that soldiers from C Company joked that they should receive the Purple Heart before boarding helicopters to the village. The fighting dragged on for two months.
US soldiers have now withdrawn from Barji Matal, leaving behind a poorly trained, ill-equipped militia to fend off the Taliban’s inevitable attempts to retake it.
As they returned to their base at Combat Outpost Monti in the neighbouring province of Kunar, worn down by weeks of sleeping rough and hiking up mountains to destroy enemy positions, some of the men wondered what had been achieved.
Helicopters and troops that could have been used to prevent militants crossing the border from Pakistan had been sucked into a futile fight, they said.
“I guarantee the Taliban will be back inside a week. If you can’t hold the village then what’s the point in going in there in the first place?” Bryant said. “As soon as you leave, it will be back in enemy hands within two or three days, and that’s not worth a soldier’s life.”
This view is gaining ground at the most senior level. After four years of bloody battles in provinces such as Nuristan, General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander, has called for the withdrawal of troops from areas with few inhabitants which are deemed too problematic to be brought under control.
Instead, in his confidential assessment of counterinsurgency efforts last month, he urged US and Nato forces to focus on “critical high-population areas that are contested or controlled by insurgents”.
In Nuristan, little has been achieved in the way of development since troops were first deployed three years ago.
Commanders admit that plans to build a road network in the province, whose capital Parun can be reached for only half the year because of snow, were ill-conceived. Just four miles of road has been constructed, most of it running from a US base.
“I think people realised it [the road network] wasn’t as great an idea as they had originally thought,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Forsyth, the officer commanding the 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, in Nuristan. “We could use our forces more effectively in other parts of the country.”
The vertiginous terrain that US forces struggle to patrol allows militants to cross from Pakistan and reclaim one village after another.
When they stormed Barji Matal, the district governor and his American-trained police force were forced to flee.The Taliban then began to harass the villagers, stashing weapons in their homes. Karzai asked the Americans to chase them out. They went in spite of a directive to ground forces in July in which McChrystal said: “Sporadically moving into areas for a short time does little good and much harm.”
In the second week of July, as US commanders finally ceded to Karzai’s demands, America was reluctantly drawn into a battle it had not wanted, as two US platoons landed in the cornfields of Barji Matal at night.
As dawn broke over the platoons and their Afghan army counterparts, a Taliban sniper fired two rounds before ducking back into cover to change his position. US soldiers said the sniper’s self-discipline — never firing off more than two rounds from any position — and his ability to avoid detection suggested he had received training abroad, perhaps in Chechnya.
The fighting intensified, with more cross-border militants joining from Pakistan and driving locals into the mountains. The two sides traded small arms fire, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.
“They cut down the corn after Specialist Miller was killed,” said First Lieutenant Tim Mergen, of C Company. “Fighters were stashing weapons in the cornfields and then leaving. They could pick them up, fire, dump the weapon and then flee.”
Some of the soldiers had narrow escapes — one sniper’s bullet grazed a soldier’s neck while he scanned the mountains.
“There’s no way I want to go back there. That place was hell,” said a US soldier who spoke of Taliban attacks every day for two weeks.
Although plans to pull out of Nuristan have already been drawn up by American commanders, some US officials say this will only facilitate the movement of weapons from Pakistan.
McChrystal nevertheless believes that troops drawn into battles such as Barji Matal should be used to shield greater numbers of people from violence. The Barji Matal offensive forced commanders to cancel strike operations against known Taliban sanctuaries because all available resources were absorbed by the fighting. Their capacity to cut off militants crossing the vast border along key infiltration routes was also severely hampered.
American commanders hope that if McChrystal’s strategy works, battles such as Barji Matal will become forgotten footnotes in books about this long, costly and bloody war.