Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trapped in Afghanistan killing zone, nowhere to run

BY JONATHAN S. LANDAY


We walked into a trap, a killing zone of relentless gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition. ``We will do to you what we did to the Russians,'' the insurgent's leader boasted over the radio, referring to the failure of Soviet troops to capture Ganjgal during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

Dashing from boulder to boulder, diving into trenches and ducking behind stone walls as the insurgents maneuvered to outflank us, we waited more than an hour for U.S. helicopters to arrive, despite earlier assurances that air cover would be five minutes away. U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines -- despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village.

``We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We've lost today,'' Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, 37, said through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter's repeated demands for helicopters. Four U.S. Marines were killed Tuesday, the most U.S. service members assigned as trainers to the Afghan National Army to be lost in a single incident since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Eight Afghan troops and police and the Marine commander's Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. around this remote hamlet in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border.

Three Americans and 19 Afghans were wounded, and U.S. forces later recovered the bodies of two insurgents, although they believe more were killed. The Marines were cut down as they sought cover in a trench at the base of the village's first layer cake-style stone house. Much of their ammunition was gone. One Marine was bending over a second, tending his wounds, when both were killed, said Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, 21, who retrieved their bodies.

RESISTANCE

A full moon was drenching the mountains in ghostly light as some 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 border police officers, 13 Marine and U.S. Army trainers and I set out for Ganjgal at 3 a.m. from the U.S. base in the Shakani District. The operation called for the Afghans to search Ganjgal for weapons and hold a meeting with the elders to discuss the establishment of police patrols. The Americans were there to give advice and call for air and artillery support if required.

Dawn was breaking by the time we alighted for a mile-long walk up a wash of gravel, rock and boulders which winds up to Ganjgal, some 60 rock-walled compounds perched high up the terraced slopes at the eastern end of the valley, six miles from the Pakistani border.

NO AIR SUPPORT

The first shot cracked out at 5:30 a.m. It quickly swelled into a furious storm of gunfire. Sniper rounds snapped off rocks and sizzled overhead. Explosions of recoilless rifle rounds echoed through the valley, while bullets inched closer to the rock wall behind which I crouched with U.S. and Afghan officers.

Lt. Ademola Fabayo, 28, and several other soldiers later said they had seen women and children in the village shuttling ammunition to fighters positioned in windows and roofs. Across the valley and from their ridgeline outposts, the Afghans and Americans fired back. At 5:50 a.m., Army Capt. Will Swenson, the trainer of the Afghan Border Police unit in Shakani, began calling for air support or artillery fire from a unit of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. The responses came back: No helicopters were available.

At 6:05 a.m., as our position was becoming increasingly tenuous, Swenson and Fabayo agreed that it was time to pull back and radioed for artillery to fire smoke rounds to mask our retreat. Fifty minutes later, as a curtain of white phosphorus smoke roiled across the valley, Swenson and Fabayo unleashed an intense volley of covering fire while the rest of us sprinted back 20 yards to a series of dirt furrows, weighed down by our flak vests and water carriers.

The two officers raced back to join us. Everyone jumped up and ran for the next stone wall. Everyone but me. Afraid that too many people were jammed together as they raced, offering easy targets, I waited behind for a break in the gunfire, an Afghan border police officer crouched next to me.

TIME TO MOVE

We soon noticed that the insurgent snipers were trying to outflank us again. My companion decided that it was time to go and bolted away, but the gunfire grew too intense, and again I pulled my body into the dirt and rocks. I wasn't as terrified as I was angry: angry at the absence of air support, angry that there was no artillery fire, angry that Williams' interpreter had been killed, angry at the realization that the operation had obviously been betrayed and angry at myself for not bolting with the others.

I knew it was time to move when I saw a gaggle of Afghan soldiers pounding through the boulders past me, their commander, a bright 26-year-old lieutenant named Ruhollah, hopping between two of them, a bullet wound in his groin. Bundling my legs beneath me, I sprang and ran, trying to weave as bullets kicked up dust around me.

I reached the next wall and plunged behind it, nearly falling on top of Swenson, Fabayo and several badly wounded U.S. soldiers. As Fabayo cracked off rounds, Swenson lay flat on his back, clasping a pressure bandage to the shoulder of one soldier with one hand and holding the microphone of his radio in the other, calling out insurgents' positions to two U.S. helicopters that finally had arrived.

It was now 7:10 a.m., and with the helicopters prowling overhead, the incoming gunfire slackened enough for us to move again. I stumbled down the valley to safety after I helped one of the injured soldiers into a medivac helicopter. Capt. Swenson and Lt. Fabayo headed off to find vehicles and, together with Cpl. Meyer, crashed back up the way we'd just fled to retrieve the bodies of the dead Marines.

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