The Korengal Valley is a lonely outpost of regress: most of the valley's people practice Wahhabism, a more rigid variety of Islam than that followed by most Afghans, and about half of the fighters confronting the U.S. there are homegrown. The rest are Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks; the area is close to Pakistan's frontier regions where Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda figures are often said to be hiding out. The Korengal fighters are fierce, know the terrain and watch the Americans' every move. On their hand-held radios, the old jihadis call the Americans "monkeys," "infidels," ''bastards" and "the kids." It's psychological warfare; they know the Americans monitor their radio chatter.
By now, seven years of air strikes and civilian casualties, humiliating house searches and arbitrary detentions have pushed many families and tribes to revenge. The Americans then see every Afghan in those pockets of recalcitrance as an enemy. If you peel back the layers, however, there's always a local political story at the root of the killing and dying. That original misunderstanding and grievance fertilizes the land for the Islamists. Whom do you want to side with: your brothers in God's world or the infidel thieves?
Last autumn, after five months of grueling foot patrols up and down the mountains, after fruitless encounters with elders who smiled in the morning and were host to insurgents in the evening and after losing friends to enemy fire, Captain Kearney's men could relate to the sullen, jittery rage of their predecessors in the 10th Mountain Division. Many wondered what they were doing out there at all.
Kearney refused to entertain that thought. He would tell his visitors, whether generals or reconstruction teams, that his campaign plan was clear, if modest: "It's World War II Pacific-island hopping, turning one village at a time." Over five months, he had gained about 400 yards of terrain. When some generals and colonels had flown in for a quick tour, and Kearney was showing them the lay of the land, one officer said to another, as Kearney later recalled it, "I don't know why we're even out here." Another officer jumped in to talk up the logic of the operation. Kearney told me he thought: Sort your stuff out before you come out here. My boys are sucking it up and dying. . . . For besides being lord of the valley, he had another role to play - motivator, disciplinarian and confidant to his soldiers. "It's like being in charge of a soap opera," he told me. "I feel like Dr. Phil with guns."
One full-moon night I was sitting outside a sandbag-reinforced hut with Kearney when a young sergeant stepped out hauling the garbage. He looked around at the illuminated mountains, the dust, the rocks, the garbage bin. The monkeys were screeching. "I hate this country!" he shouted. Then he smiled and walked back into the hut. "He's on medication," Kearney said quietly to me.
Then another soldier walked by and shouted, "Hey, I'm with you, sir!" and Kearney said to me, "Prozac. Serious P.T.S.D. from last tour." Another one popped out of the HQ cursing and muttering. "Medicated," Kearney said. "Last tour, if you didn't give him information, he'd burn down your house. He killed so many people. He's checked out."
Next comes the chilling part. Go read.
On Oct. 19, Kearney and Battle Company were air assaulted into the insurgents' backyard for a mission that many thought insane. It was called Rock Avalanche and would last about six days. One of its main targets was the village of Yaka China.
It was a lot to ask of young soldiers: play killer, cultural anthropologist, hearts-and-minds winner and then killer again. Which is why, just hours before the mission was to begin, some soldiers were smearing black-and-green war paint on their faces when their sergeant shouted: "Take it off. Now!" Why? They'd frighten the villagers.
The day after the meeting with the elders of Yaka China, Yarnell and John could hear insurgents trying to pinpoint where Kearney and his men were. The helicopters had moved us to a ridge line, about 8,400 feet high, straddling the Korengal and Shuriak Valleys. The insurgents used the deep caves, boulders and forests as hideouts and transit routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We could hear someone who called himself Obeid saying he'd do whatever the Yaka China elders decided - whether to cooperate with the Americans or take revenge. By evening the elders had apparently reached their verdict. It was fight time.
I'm leaving a big gap here on purpose.
Kearney was watching a crow flying above us. "Taliban are right," he said. "Like they said yesterday, follow the birds, they follow the Americans. I wish I was made as strong as haj" - their nickname for insurgents. "They were balls to do what they did. And guess what? I'm not gonna lie. They won."
As Giunta said, "The richest, most-trained army got beat by dudes in manjammies and A.K.'s." His voice cracked. He was not just hurting, he was in a rage. And there was nothing for him to do with it but hold back his tears, and bark - at the Afghans for betraying them, at the Army for betraying them. He didn't run to the front because he was a hero. He ran up to get to Brennan, his friend. "But they" - he meant the military - "just keep asking for more from us." His contract would be up in 18 days but he had been stop-lossed and couldn't go home. Brennan himself was supposed to have gotten out in September. He'd been planning to go back to Wisconsin where his dad lived, play his guitar and become a cop.
Sandifer was questioning why they were sticking it out in the Korengal when the people so clearly hated them. He was haunted by Mendoza's voice calling to him: "I'm bleeding out. I'm dying." He worried that the Korengal was going to push them off the deep end. In his imagination it had already happened. One day an Afghan visited their fire base, Sandifer told me. "I was staring at him, on the verge of picking up my weapon to shoot him," he said. "I know right from wrong, but even if I did shoot him everyone at the fire base would have been O.K. We're all to the point of 'Lord of the Flies.'" And they still had 10 months to go in the Korengal.
Colonel Ostlund and his officers, and the governor of Kunar and his officials, held an all-day meeting with the Korengali elders. The elders wanted to talk about Rock Avalanche and the devastation that had rained down on them. Colonel Ostlund told them, "If anything should happen to Captain Kearney, pain and misery will knock on many doors in the Korengal." He gave them 10 days to pick sides - the insurgents or the government. Only then would he consider going ahead with the road project. Their answer came back. They would leave the valley altogether. But they didn't, and 10 days later insurgents pulled off another ambush of a platoon from the 173rd. The entire patrol went down, either wounded or killed. Kearney told me recently that they had wounded Abu Ikhlas and killed some other bad guys. He said he was pretty sure that Haji Matin, the embittered timber lord, had been killed, too. But the dialogue with the Korengalis was pretty much the same as it had been. Only the winter snows have brought some minor respite to the valley.
The only comment I have to make is that our guys in Afghanistan are out on the tip of a very sharp spear with no handle. They've been shortchanged and hung out to dry with not enough resources because of the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Thanks again, George.