On a cold winter night in late February 2005, two bearded SF soldiers quietly packed several days worth of supplies on three donkeys. They set out under the cover of darkness from a small special forces A-camp in the remote mountainous border region of eastern Afghanistan, near the Taliban controlled Pakistani border town of Lwara. They spent the next four days, accompanied by four indigenous members of the irregular Afghan Security Force (ASF), walking across snow covered mountains in order to make contact with tribal leaders in Afghanistan’s isolated and historically enemy-controlled Gayan Valley.92
The SF detachment at A-Camp Tillman had been experimenting for several months with employing small four-to-six man “recce teams” to hunt Taliban insurgents moving freely through the mountains on their way to conduct attacks throughout Paktika Province. The recce teams consisted of a two-man SF sniper/observer element and two-to-four locally hired and specially selected (ASF) scouts to serve as guides and provide security. In February, these operations began to meet with success. The small teams, often employing pack animals, moved long distances through the mountains discretely, established hide sites along suspected infiltration routes, and achieved tactical surprise on Taliban patrols. Over the next six months, these small teams increasingly inflicted losses on squad and platoon-size Taliban elements. They effectively employed a combination of stealth, sniper engagements and artillery fire from the 105mm howitzers at the A-Camp to achieve relative superiority over numerically superior enemy forces, without endangering the population in the villages.93
The Taliban defeats were physical, but more importantly psychological. The insurgents had become very comfortable with being able to move freely through this difficult terrain to conduct rocket and mortar attacks on coalition bases and set up ambushes on coalition patrols that were largely tied to their vehicles along the narrow mountain trails and streams that sufficed as the Afghan equivalent of roads. The sudden and unexpected surprise of sniper and artillery fire shattered the confidence of the Taliban who could not visually detect the recce teams, anticipate the contact or effectively respond to the tactics. Each contact concluded with the insurgents retreating back across the Pakistani border after taking initial casualties. Radio intercepts clearly revealed their frustrations. The insurgent physical casualties resulting from these operations, though often minimal in nature, had a profound psychological impact. The insurgents were now unsure in an environment they previously felt confident in and reconsidered their movements along infiltration routes they once traveled with impunity. By late spring, insurgents largely abandoned border penetrations in the Lwara area and instead focused on long-range rocket attacks from the relative safety of Pakistani territory.94
Unfortunately, the acceptability of these highly successful small-team tactics largely came to an end following the loss of a four-man SEAL reconnaissance team in Operation Red Wings in June 2005.95 The operational environment became more restrictive in the months that followed and the appetite for the risk associated with these tactics rapidly evaporated. In the Lwara area, this would eventually result in the resumption of large-scale enemy penetrations and attacks in the fall of 2005.
Several days before their journey into Gayan, Sergeant First Class Christopher Roach and Sergeant First Class Victor Cervantes had approached their commander with an interesting idea. After the first couple of daylight returns from their “recce patrols” they had abandoned theirposture of stealth and overtly approached a couple of small mountain villages. 96 The villagers first assumed that the small party of bearded men descending from the mountains in a motley mix of camouflage and afghan garb was Taliban. The Afghans cautiously came out to greet the party as it entered the small village, but somewhat shocked when the “Taliban” (the ASF scouts) introduced them to the Americans accompanying them. What followed surprised the two green berets. The tribe welcomed them into the village with a level of hospitality they had yet to witness in Afghanistan. In their first two of months in the Lwara area, their contact with villagers had normally come as they stepped from a Humvee bristling with machine guns. Now they were initially mistaken for a Taliban patrol. Moreover, even after their foreign identity was known, they were still treated noticeably different by the Pashtun tribesmen because of the way they looked and familiar Afghan manner they had approached the village. Their appearance and actions, especially the way they entered the village walking down out of the mountains leading donkey, reflected a warrior image that the Afghans identified with and embraced. After the second incident like this, they developed a theory that they could walk over a mountain range and enter the last “bad guy” valley in the district and potentially receive the same instant rapport.97
The Gayan Valley was a narrow opening between two mountain ranges that converged again at the upper end in the north. A single stream emptied out of the lower end of the valley in the south and served as the only vehicle route in and out. The rock canyon walls of the stream were thirty feet high in areas and were so narrow in some places that the mirrors on a humvee had to be folded in to squeeze through. This canyon essentially served as gate to the valley. It was
virtually impossible to fight into the valley on the ground if the local tribe chose to resist. Several gunfights with coalition forces had taken place near this southern gate between 2002-2004.98 This resulted in a few special operations helicopter raids near the southern end of the valley that further soured the valley’s reputation with the coalition, and the coalition’s reputation with the
valley. Nevertheless, it was unclear whether the tribe in Gayan had real ideological links to the Taliban or simply preferred their isolation and made that point by occasionally shooting at coalition members passing by the southern opening.99
SFC Roach and SFC Cervantes planned their mission for several days. They would cross a 10,000 ft. high snow covered mountain range and approach the valley from the north. They would observe the valley for a couple days from the mountains to ensure no large insurgent elements were present, and would then decide whether or not to approach. Once initial contact was made they had a three-fold agenda; build rapport, conduct an assessment of the tribal leadership’s political sentiments, and attempt to secure an agreement from the tribe to accept a medical civic action program (MEDCAP) visit. If successful, the MEDCAP would set the environment for eventually negotiating a mutual security pact with the tribe. The long-range goals of the SF team included a future safe-house and clinic in Gayan along with a 40-man security force to protect the valley. However this mission would be a success even if it only opened a line of communication with the tribe in Gayan.100
During this reconnaissance and assessment, the small six-man party would be outside the range of the camp’s artillery To mitigate this short-coming in protective firepower, a Marine Corps Embedded Training Team (ETT) assisted by positioning an Afghan National Army reaction force approximately 20 kilometers from Gayan under the guise of a traffic control point along the main east-west route through Paktika province. Nevertheless, it was an inherently risky operation, even more so given the valley’s history and the A-Camp’s inability to range the valley with artillery fire. Nevertheless, the theory the two SF sergeants presented was strong, their argument compelling and the potential payoff worth the risk. 101
After two days of walking and two more watching the valley from a rocky peak, two bearded Americans, four Afghan scouts, three donkeys, and a dog walked down out of the snowcovered mountains and into the Gayan valley. The result exceeded expectations. As the two SF sergeants predicted, the appearance of the patrol both amazed and bemused the tribe, especially when the ASF scouts introduced them to the two Americans. They walked into the village like members of the tribe returning from one of their own patrols. One of the tribal elders was so impressed by the event, that before dinner that evening, for the first time in years, he put on his old police uniform from the pre-Taliban era. After a couple of dinners and meetings over chai, the tribal elders agreed to the proposals in full. Two weeks later the MEDCAP drew over 2,000 patients, the team hired a 40-man tribal security force, rented a safe-house and established a permanent presence in the valley. Over the coming months based on the success of this operation, CJSOTF-A decided to relocate an SF detachment from Orgun, Afghanistan, to occupy the new safe-house, assume control of the security force, and begin the construction of a firebase. Without a firing a shot, two SF sergeants had pacified the Gayan valley and changed the dynamics in the one of the most dangerous districts in Afghanistan.102
The Quiet Professionals have been way too quiet about adventures like this. Anyway, MAJ Litchfield’s whole monograph is worthy of your attention.