HOME OF COMPANY B The United States operates remote firebases and outposts far from the main roads and cities, hoping to keep insurgents busy far away from much of the population. This is part of a defense-in-depth of blocking positions, or, as one colonel called them, Taliban magnets. Viper Company, which occupies the Korangal Outpost, in the most dangerous part of a highly unstable country, is one of those magnets. In many ways, Viper Company's area of operations is the American experience of rural Afghanistan in a microcosm: In every direction are small valleys, and within each are smaller canyons, a land of seams beyond measure, with each valley and hamlet a place where few Americans, if any, have stepped in years.
Uphill Company B walked, as the temperature dropped. Viper Shake had been planned as a roughly thirty-six-hour walk without sleep, beginning with a helicopter insert on this night from the outpost to the ridge and continuing through the next day, followed by a descent the following night down the mountain, with the hope of crossing the Korangal River and passing back into the outpost shortly after dawn. That last bit was essential. After several years of intense combat, local Afghans had scratched out fighting positions facing the approaches to the American lines. The company did not want to be caught in the low ground, trying to cross the river in the morning, when they might get raked with machine-gun fire from above. In a head-to-head fight, the insurgents were no match for the company. But if the company was caught down there, or midriver, many of its advantages would be gone.
Down was to be worried about later. Now Company B was going up. And as the minutes became hours, the soldiers were only beginning. The helicopters had picked up the company in the first hours of darkness. The pilots of transport helicopters do not like to fly in the Korangal Valley, and they rarely try by daylight because gunmen wait, armed with PK and DShK machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They know the helicopters' routine. Two transport helicopters were downed in the valley in the past nine months. Now transport pilots prefer the night. Even then they arrive with Apache gunships as escorts, so that anyone daring to shoot risks a punishing response.
It had taken weeks to organize the operation. Company B runs several small positions in the valley, and since these positions could not be abandoned while the company worked outside the wire, the battalion had sent two extra platoons for Viper Shake. These soldiers had trickled in on recent night flights, and been ordered not to wander outside, because if spotters noticed that the outpost had been reinforced, they might suspect that Company B was about to push out for a fight. And so Company B had waited until nighttime, when the soldiers appeared and lined up in the dark, waiting for the hop onto Sawtalo Sar.
After the pickup, the helicopters had first flown to another ridge and pretended to land there — a second effort to deceive. If the spotters were not sure where the company had landed, their confusion might buy time and let the soldiers catch somebody unaware. And so it had gone. The soldiers were flown to one ridge, then another. On the second ridge the helicopters landed in a clearing, with door gunners looking over their weapons and shouting, "Go!" and everyone rose and ran out the back ramp and fanned out as the downblast and hot exhaust blew the brush flat and the helicopters lifted away. Now Company B walked, although no one had any idea whether the feint had worked. They were silently busy with other things, each man in his own mind, walking up a hill he could barely see. Talking on patrol is discouraged; the soldiers were silent. The moon had yet to rise, and they knew that when it did, it would be a sliver, which meant that all night the mountain would be so black that when a soldier switched off his night-vision device, he would see nothing except stars overhead through gaps in the trees.
A tour in the infantry, along with nine months in the Afghan mountains, was enough to condition any young man. The soldiers of Company B were almost all lean, sinewy even, and acclimated to the air. They knew the rhythms of this place. One of the platoons, 2nd Platoon, had been in ferocious contacts twice in recent days. First it had ambushed an Afghan patrol, killing at least thirteen armed men at close range. And then it had been ambushed itself, and fought its way out of the riverbed under fire from high ground on three sides. In nine months in the valley, 2nd Platoon's casualty rate was an even 50 percent; sixteen of the thirty-two original soldiers were no longer here. Four of those soldiers had been killed, including Private First Class Richard Dewater, who died in the first instant of the last fight, when the insurgents detonated a bomb beneath him on a trail.
Second Platoon had lingered in the landing zone after the rest of Company B filed off. A pilot had seen a pile of ammunition for a recoilless rifle as he had landed, a cache hidden by brush. The platoon had scoured the field. But in the blackness the soldiers found nothing. The company commander, Captain James Howell, ordered 2nd Platoon to rejoin the company, which was walking away. Once the platoon slipped into the forest and began to catch up, the captain directed an air strike onto the zone. Explosions roared behind them. Then the night was silent again.
The climb was not easy. The mud turned greasy as more soldiers walked through it. Traction was difficult to find; in places, each step could take a man backward, as the soil and snow gave way and he slid down. Branches swept the soldiers' faces. Some soldiers fell, cursing to themselves as they pulled themselves to their feet. A few suffered already from bum ankles and knees, and now some men straggled. An Air Force sergeant in the command group, who was carrying a pack heavy with communications gear, fell behind, too. Captain Howell backtracked and stood over the sergeant, who was bent forward, head low, hands on knees, panting, spent. The captain told him to remove the backpack and carry only his weapon and water. Then he swung the radio on his back and walked off, carrying the sergeant's equipment and his own.
Even without the pack, the man was too tired.
In all, as Company B was spread in a half-mile line along the ridge, three soldiers had become too exhausted to keep up. The captain listened to radio chatter; he realized these men would slow down the job. He called for a helicopter, which appeared within minutes, landed, and lifted the men away.
Three men down. The company moved on.
The problem with the United States' multiple missions is not that any of them is without merit, although each has had its mix-ups and flaws. The problem lies in the relationship of missions to one another. From 2002 to 2008, the American national-security establishment devoted the larger share of its intellectual and material resources to the war in Iraq. And predictably and surely, no one was able or empowered to make the Afghan missions cohere.
Many of the ensuing problems are natural to war. Even on the most simple patrol, soldiers disagree about how things should best be done. Add diplomats and politicians and salesmen and try to develop strategy for Afghanistan and disagreements creep into all manner of essential subjects, from the values versus the perils of air power to ways to deter the cultivation of poppy to the merits and means of democratization to the size and composition of the troop level to the best manner and locations to deploy units in the field. But the war's conduct has not suffered from only disagreements writ large. It has been undermined by disharmony. Various missions have fallen under various commands. Several NATO countries contributed forces with caveats and limits on their roles. And at the doctrinal level, the core question of how to put Western counterinsurgency theory into practice remains publicly unresolved. Even the term "Afghan war" is inadequate; the same war is being fought deep into Pakistan, where the rules change again.
No commander could be expected to juggle all of this to victory, especially in the years after Iraq exploded in violence and the message in Washington was that the United States had prevailed in Afghanistan and was running down the last few villains to mop up. Top officers rotated through the many Afghan commands. Central problems remained unresolved. By the time of Viper Shake, focus had swung back. And the current four-star, General David McKiernan, was rumored down to the level of the brigade officers to have been at odds with the brass in the United States. He was soon to be relieved, a sign that the United States was still struggling, at the highest levels, to shape itself to the work.