April 17, 2009
Fight by fight, the infantryman’s war in Afghanistan is often waged on the Taliban’s terms. Insurgents ambush convoys and patrols from high ridges or long ranges and slip away as the Americans, weighed down by equipment, return fire and call for air and artillery support. Last week a patrol from the First Infantry Division reversed the routine.
An American platoon surprised an armed Taliban column on a forested ridgeline at night, and killed at least 13 insurgents, and perhaps many more, with rifles, machine guns, Claymore mines, hand grenades and a knife.
The one-sided fight, fought on the slopes of the same mountain where a Navy Seal patrol was surrounded in 2005 and a helicopter with reinforcements was shot down, does not change the war. It was one of hundreds of firefights that have occurred in the Korangal Valley, an isolated region where local insurgents and the Americans have been locked in a bitter stalemate for more than three years.
But as accounts of the fight have spread, the ambush, on Good Friday, has become an emotional rallying point for soldiers in Kunar Province, who have seen it as a both a validation of their equipment and training and a welcome bit of score-settling in an area that in recent years has claimed more American lives than any other.
The patrol, 30 soldiers from the First Battalion, 26th Infantry, had left this outpost before noon on April 10, and spent much of the day climbing a ridge on the opposite side of the Korangal River, according to interviews with more than half the participants.
Once the soldiers reached the ridge’s crest, almost 6,000 feet above sea level on the side of a peak called Sautalu Sar, they found fresh footprints on the trails, and parapets of rock from where Taliban fighters often fire rifles and rocket-propelled grenades down onto this outpost.
The platoon leader, Second Lt. Justin Smith, selected a spot where trails intersected, and the platoon dug shallow fighting holes before dark. Claymore antipersonnel mines were set among the trees nearby.
At sunset, Lieutenant Smith called for a period of absolute silence, which lasted into darkness. Then he ordered three scouts to sit in a listening post about 100 yards away, 10 feet off the trail.
The scouts set in. Less than a half-minute later, a column of Taliban fighters appeared, walking briskly their way.
Sgt. Zachary R. Reese, a sniper, whispered into his radio. “We have eight enemy personnel coming down on our position really fast,” he said. He could say no more; the Taliban fighters were a few feet away.
More appeared. Then more still. The sergeant counted 26 gunmen pass by.
The patrol, Second Platoon of Company B, was in a place where no Americans had spent a night for years, and it seemed that the Afghans did not expect danger.
The soldiers waited. The rules of the ambush were long ago drilled into them: no one can move, and no one can fire until the patrol leader gives the order. Then everyone must fire at once.
The third Taliban fighter in the column switched on a flashlight, the soldiers said, and quickly switched it off. About 50 yards separated the two sides, but Lieutenant Smith did not want to start shooting too soon, he said, “because if too many lived then we’d be up there fighting them all night.”
He let the Taliban column continue on. The soldiers trained their weapons’ infrared lasers, which are visible only with night-vision equipment, on the fighters as they drew closer. The lasers mark the path a bullet will fly.
The lead fighter had almost reached the platoon when Pvt. First Class Troy Pacini-Harvey, 19, his laser trained on the lead man’s forehead, moved his rifle’s selector lever from safe to semi-automatic. It made a barely audible click. The Taliban fighter froze. He was six feet away.
Lieutenant Smith was new to the platoon. This was his fourth patrol. He was in a situation that every infantry lieutenant trains for, but almost no infantry lieutenant ever sees. “Fire,” he said, softly into the radio. “Fire. Fire. Fire.”
As accounts of the fight have spread, the ambush, on Good Friday, has become an emotional rallying point for soldiers in Kunar Province.
The soldiers spoke to an Afghan man while on patrol.
The platoon’s frontage exploded with noise and flashes of light as soldiers fired. Bullets struck all of the lead Taliban fighters, the soldiers said. The first Afghans fell where they were hit, not managing to fire a single shot.
Five Taliban fighters bolted to the soldiers’ left, unwittingly running squarely into the path of machine-gun bullets and the Claymore mines. For a moment, the soldiers heard rustling in the brush. They detonated their Claymores and threw hand grenades. The rustling stopped.
Two other Taliban fighters had dashed to the right, toward an almost sheer drop. One ran so wildly in the blackness that his momentum carried him off the cliff, several soldiers said.
Another stopped at the edge. Pvt. First Class Brad Larson, 19, had followed the man with his laser. “I took him out,” he said.
Yes you did, son.
You did indeed. Well done.
Posted by Cassandra at April 17, 2009 03:17 PM
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Well done, indeed.
Because they are engaging the enemy in Afghanistan, we don't have the elevated risk here at home.
God Bless each soldier. Stay Safe.
Posted by: MAS1916 at April 17, 2009 03:55 PM
Rock-n-roll, lock-n-load! God bless our brave soldiers for taking care of business overseas. Thank God for them!
Posted by: Red at April 17, 2009 05:43 PM
Beyond gratitude, beyond appreciation... Well, William's Henry said it best,
"And gentlemen in England now a-bedAmen.
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us..."
And it's good to hear that our soldiers, to paraphrase David Hackworth from a theme in his first book, out guerrilla the guerrillas.
Posted by: bthun at April 17, 2009 06:06 PM
Go Team USA.
We own the night!
Posted by: Kbob in Katy at April 17, 2009 09:25 PM
The lead Taliban heard the voice of Allah when he heard the safety released...or at least the voice of one his promised goats in the hereafter.
Paybacks are best delivered cold from the Indian Ocean off Somalia to Sautalu Sar in the mountains of Afghanistan. I say with pride, "Those are our guys over there taking care of business."
As opposed to the DHS and Janet Napolitano back here at home...!
Posted by: vet66 at April 18, 2009 09:30 AM
A good ambush is supposed to be one sided; if you're in the kill zone, you're supposed to wind up dead. It's nice to see an American platoon as the ambushers instead of the ambushees--and also nice to know that American troops own the night.
Posted by: Mike Myers at April 18, 2009 11:17 AM
And then...there was...silence. The true freedom fighters reloaded. God bless them.
Posted by: Ziobuck at April 18, 2009 01:03 PM