GANJGAL, Afghanistan — Manning a machine gun on a ridge overlooking this remote Afghan village, U.S. Marine Cpl. Steven Norman tried desperately to lay down covering fire for some 90 Afghan security forces and U.S. military trainers who were trapped in an ambush in the valley below.
Each time he'd raise his head to let loose a burst, however, the insurgents in the encircling mountains and the fortress-like hamlet itself would drive Norman down, drenching his position with cascades of machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
"I was pinned down hard core," recalled the slight 21-year-old from Moultrie, Ga., part of a team from the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Division based in the nearby town of Sarkani. "I'd look where they were shooting, and I would shoot back. But I was pinned down."
Norman and other combat veterans who were caught in the Tuesday ambush that killed Navy corpsman James Layton of Riverbank, three U.S. Marines and nine Afghans said it was the deadliest, most intense combat they'd faced in Afghanistan or Iraq. The insurgents never ran out of ammunition, they recalled, and some even wore helmets, flak jackets and military-style magazine pouches.
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"They were firing from every direction. They were well-placed. We could hardly see them," Norman said. "They were very coordinated in their fire. When we'd suppress that fire, they'd hit us from somewhere else."
The ambush and the nearly nine-hour battle in the rugged mountains of eastern Kunar province illustrated many of the toughest challenges inherited by the Obama administration and U.S. commanders and their soldiers, who are scrambling to regain the upper hand in an eight-year guerrilla war that's growing bloodier and more unpopular in both countries by the day.
Intelligence is inadequate.
The Afghans and their U.S. trainers expected to face no more than a dozen insurgents in Ganjgal on their mission to sweep the village for arms and meet with the elders to discuss implementing an agreement to accept the local government's authority.
Instead, the contingent of 80 Afghan troops and border police and about a dozen U.S. military trainers walked into a three- sided storm of fire from automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and at least one recoilless rifle.
Iraq focus bled resources
The lack of timely air support — it took about 80 minutes by a reporter's watch for helicopters to arrive, despite assurances that they'd be five minutes away — was a consequence of the manpower and equipment shortages bequeathed by the Bush administration's failure to secure Afghanistan against a resurgence of the Taliban, al-Qaida and allied groups before turning to invade Iraq.
There are a limited number of U.S. helicopters in Kunar, a stretch of craggy mountains and serpentine valleys bordering Pakistan where air power gives a vital edge to overstretched U.S. troops fighting guerrillas who know every nook and trail of the area. Unbeknownst to those trapped in the Ganjgal kill zone, however, the available aircraft were tied up in the Shiryak Valley to the north in a battle in which two pilots were wounded, U.S. commanders said.
The denial of heavy artillery fire to those trapped in Ganjgal also has roots in the Bush administration's decision to divert resources to Iraq and the resulting stress on the U.S. military.
New rules limiting the use of artillery imposed by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal after he took command of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan this summer are intended to curb civilian casualties caused in part by his contingent's reliance on artillery barrages and air strikes to compensate for their shortage of ground troops.
Artillery limits anger soldiers
The rising toll has enraged ordinary Afghans, whose support is key to the U.S. goal of marginalizing the hardest-core insurgents.
It's also provided the Taliban with recruits and a propaganda bonanza and allowed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to score domestic political points by deflecting blame for the deepening crisis onto his American and European patrons.
The worst single loss of U.S. military trainers of the war brought out the deep bitterness with which many soldiers view the new rules. They feel unfairly handcuffed, especially in the case of Ganjgal, where women and children were seen running ammunition and weapons to gunmen firing from inside the hilltop hamlet.
There are circumstances — and Ganjgal was one — when the rule book should be tossed out, they said.
"We basically screwed our guys over," said Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, 21, of Greensburg, Ky., who braved enemy fire to retrieve the bodies of his fallen comrades from outside the village. "They expect us to bring stuff to the fight, and (U.S. commanders) didn't give it to us."
That anger was magnified by a realization that the insurgents in Ganjgal had somehow learned of the operation in advance and were waiting for the contingent to enter the valley as the sun rose.
"We walked right into it," Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, of Louisville, Ky., the trainers' commander, said ruefully as he nursed a wounded forearm.
Area rife with challenges
The failed operation drove home other problems and complexities that U.S.-led forces are grappling with as they pursue President Barack Obama's counterinsurgency policy of redoubling underfunded civilian aid programs and transferring greater responsibility to the Afghans for running their own affairs.
Ganjgal and villages farther into the mountains are way stations on a traditional smuggling route that insurgents use to move men and weapons into Afghanistan from Pakistan, unhindered by Pakistani security forces, according to U.S. and Afghan officers.
Insurgents also use the area around the hamlet to fire rockets and mortars into U.S. Forward Operating Base Joyce with such frequency that the stronghold where the U.S. trainers and the Afghan troops live has been christened "Rocket City." So when Afghan Border Police commanders developed an idea to extend the government's writ to the area, U.S. officers jumped at it, despite the contingent's reputation as the most corrupt of Afghanistan's security organizations.
Afghan army officers drew up a plan for a weapons search and a meeting with the Ganjgal elders to discuss the establishment of Afghan police patrols. U.S. officers refined the plan.
Then things began to go wrong.
Afghan army plan goes awry
The operation was first set for Monday. A day earlier, Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, who helped lead the operation; Army Capt. William Swenson of Seattle, a border police trainer; and Capt. Talib, the Afghan army officer who developed the plan, met with Lt. Mohammad Nader, the border police operations officer, to finalize his unit's participation. A reporter sat in on the meeting.
"I'm not ready for this mission," Nader said. "The group that you are trying to get for this mission is (committed to) escorting a supply convoy."
The others were stunned. They worried that a delay would give the insurgents time to take revenge on the elders or force them to renege. Swenson asked to speak to Nader's superior. He was resting and refused to leave his room.
"Let's do the mission concept at least," Swenson told Nader. "We can do the timeline and the concept, but just not what day we will do this. We can let this slip to another day."
"All's I'm saying is that I have to get ready for the escort mission," Nader replied. "We will be talking about a plan without the approval of the commanders."
Border unit seen as key
Meeting later with staff officers from the 10th Mountain Division's "Task Force Chosin," Fabayo and Swenson discussed alternatives to delaying the operation, including using ordinary Afghan police to replace the border unit. They rejected the idea, reasoning that ordinary cops were no substitute for border officers, who are trained and equipped as light infantry.
Moreover, the pair worried that they'd compromise their goal of building trust and cooperation between the border police and the army.
The meeting ended with a decision to delay the operation by a day while the border police commander, who was on leave in Kabul, was contacted and persuaded to order his unit to participate, even though that meant losing the helicopter cover that had been reserved for the operation Monday.
It was then that the Task Force Chosin delegation assured Fabayo and Swenson that if they were needed, helicopters would "be five minutes away." At the same meeting, a warning that Nader sounded to mission planners became the epitaph of the mission.
"The Ganjgal people have an expression," he said. "'It's up to you to come into the valley, but it's up to us to let you out.'"