The Valley Of Death

Inside the battle of Shah-i-Kot, where the enemy had nothing to lose and U.S. soldiers had to fight for their lives
This story from Time Magazine

In the TV commercials they call it "an army of one," and the phrase is intended to send a message: in the U.S. armed forces, every person counts.  If you take a round, your buddies will come and get you. "The Ranger creed is that you do not leave a fallen comrade on the field of battle," says David Anderson, of Jacksonville, Fla., a former Ranger whose son, Marc Anthony Anderson, followed him into the Army. "I really believed in what the creed says, and Marc did. He said, 'If something happens to me, don't worry, because you'll have a body.'"

Last week Marc's body, along with those of seven other American soldiers, was flown from Afghanistan to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany before coming home for those proud, sad ceremonies that mark the death of young men in battle. The Army had once more been asked to live up to the promise it makes to those who serve. "We don't leave Americans behind," says Brigadier General John Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last week that word was kept. But the price for doing so was high.

For weeks U.S. forces had been watching as Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters gathered south of Kabul. Code-named Operation Anaconda, the battle plan aimed at this force was a hammer-and-anvil strategy. Friendly Afghans, assisted by U.S. special forces, would flush the enemy from the north and northwest toward three exits of the Shah-i-Kot valley, where American troops waited. To the south, battle positions Heather and Ginger were divided by a hill christened the Whale, while to the east, battle position Eve guarded escape routes over the high mountains to Pakistan. But after two days of fierce combat, the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were still in place; one American had already been killed.

Before dawn on Monday, two huge MH-47 Chinooks, double-headed flying beasts like something out of Tolkien, chugged through the frigid air. They were on their way from Bagram air base, north of Kabul, to Shah-i-Kot and the most intense battle so far of the Afghan war. A force that would eventually grow to more than 1,000 Americans, drawn mainly from the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne divisions, together with Afghan militias and about 200 special forces from allied nations, was engaged with perhaps 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters-four times as many enemy men as the U.S. had expected. The battlefield spread over 70 sq. mi., at altitudes that ranged from 8,000 to 12,000 ft. and temperatures that dipped at night to 15*none.

The Chinooks headed for Ginger, at the southeast corner of the valley, where American forces had met intense opposition two days before. As the choppers prepared to set down, they came under heavy fire from small arms and rocket - propelled grenades, one of which bounced, without exploding, off the armor of a Chinook. In the same bird, a hydraulic line was cut, and the pilots radioed back to Bagram that continuing with the mission would be suicide. Major General Frank (Buster) Hagenbeck, the force commander, agreed, and the choppers veered away to the north, climbing steeply. They found a place to set down and did a head count. On the damaged Chinook, one man was missing. They counted again. Navy seal Neil Roberts, the rear gunner who had been returning fire from the open back hatch, was no longer with his team. Roberts had apparently been jolted out when the chopper banked hard to the north.

The Rangers radioed Bagram for permission to go after their man. Hagenbeck agreed, and the undamaged Chinook dropped off six commandos to search for Roberts; then both helicopters returned to base. Unmanned surveillance aircraft searched for the missing man and found him moving across the valley. Images beamed from the drones to video monitors at Bagram showed three men approaching Roberts. They were at first thought to be friendly.

Then Roberts was seen trying to flee. About three hours after the first incident, two more Chinooks set off from Bagram on a dual mission: to rescue Roberts and to insert more troops at Ginger. One of the choppers took heavy machine-gun fire. It shuddered and spiraled toward the ground but managed to crash-land less than a mile from the place the first pair had come under attack. As the troops clambered out of the wrecked MH-47, they were ambushed. Hagenbeck ordered AC-130 gunships to the battle to provide close air support, but the al-Qaeda barrage was so intense that U.S. troops couldn't be lifted out during daylight. Fighting continued through the day, as the first team searching for Roberts fought its way to the downed Chinook. It was not until midnight that the last U.S. soldier was evacuated.

The choppers also carried 11 wounded and the bodies of seven Americans- Roberts and six of his would-be rescuers. Roberts had died at the hands of his three pursuers.

Soldiers know the nature of their business. But death in war is no less painful to those left behind just because it goes with the mission. Roberts, 32, from a suburb of Sacramento, Calif., left a wife and 2-year-old daughter. "He was a great guy," said his sister-in-law Denise Roberts. "His mother said at least she knew he died doing what he loved to do." Valerie Chapman, widow of Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman, 36, who lived in Fayetteville, N.C., had the same thought. "You have to love it to do what they do," she said of her husband, who died with Anderson and four others in the fire fight after the Chinook crash-landed. "And he loved his job."

It isn't just the death of Americans that distinguishes the battle of  Shah-i-Kot-or even its intensity. (After a week of fighting, U.S. and French planes were still bombing enemy positions relentlessly.) Privately, in the Pentagon, a conviction is growing that the battle may be a climactic moment in the war. Before Christmas, in the ridges and caves of Tora Bora, the Americans had let their Afghan proxies do most of the fighting on the ground. As a result, hundreds-perhaps thousands-of al-Qaeda fighters escaped to fight another day. In Shah-i-Kot the brunt of the dirty work has been borne by Americans.

After a week of fighting, a military source estimated that 800 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had been killed. Total confirmed casualties on the allied side: 11 dead, of whom eight were American and three Afghan, and 88 wounded, 18 of them Afghan.


The commitment of U.S. power was necessary because of the surprisingly large force arrayed in Shah-i-Kot. Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan's interim government, called the valley "the last isolated base of terrorism" in his country. Pentagon officials dispute that-a source says there are still major pockets of resistance around Herat and Kandahar-but acknowledge that the number of enemy troops in Shah-i-Kot was extraordinary.

One other thing about the Taliban and al-Qaeda warriors at Shah-i-Kot: they fought to the death. That may be because the Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks among them have nowhere to go, save Guantanamo Bay. But their ferocity may have another cause. In the caves on the snow-covered ridges may hide some top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including, possibly, one of the big three, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri. "There's no question that these people didn't just happen to all meet there," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "There's clearly leadership involved."

Shortly after the battle began, U.S. intelligence detected hundreds of al-Qaeda sympathizers streaming toward the front lines from Pakistan.

American officials wonder why such reinforcements would set off on a suicide mission unless they thought their leaders were trapped. American forces believe they have identified one "high-value target" in the valley, distinguished by the extent of his protection. Sardar Khan Zadran, a local commander, told Time that last Wednesday, at a checkpoint on a mountain road leading to Khost, American-trained Afghan militiamen frisked two tribesmen and found an audiotape of bin Laden, some photographs of him, a letter detailing al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and a list of local chieftains who are taking bribes. The tape was whisked off to Bagram for analysis. Does Khan think bin Laden is up in the hills? "I don't know about Osama," he told Time, "but a lot of his friends are there."

More friends, certainly, than U.S. intelligence had detected. "The picture intel painted," says Sergeant Major Frank Grippe of the 10th Mountain Division, who took shrapnel wounds in his legs on the first day, "was just a little bit different from events happening on the ground." That's a soldier's understatement. As they prepared at Bagram, U.S. forces were told to ready themselves to meet from 150 to 200 of the enemy. After less than a week of battle, the Pentagon was already claiming they had killed around 500, and the fighting still wasn't over. What had gone wrong?

The answer: partial information and the rivalries of local warlords, which in Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin. The Americans have always known that Paktia province, where the fighting is taking place, is bandit country. (Ironically, the new governor of the province, and Karzai's voice there, is an American citizen: Taj Muhammad Wardak spent the past decade in Los Angeles.) Shah-i-Kot was a well-known base for the mujahedin fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s; indeed, the Soviets never took the valley. The soft shale on the ridges is ideal for the construction of caves. One cave, visited last week by a Time reporter, was at least 40 yards deep and high enough to swallow a pickup truck. Many Afghans in Paktia still sympathize with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Near Khost, the tomb of an al-Qaeda warrior killed by a U.S. bomb while he was praying at a mosque has become a shrine.

Local villagers are convinced that the dead man's ghost has healing powers.  After the fall of the Taliban, about 500 renegade fighters, together with Arabs and other foreigners and their families-around 2,000 people, according to some estimates-holed up in the town of Zurmat. About three weeks ago, local chieftains got wind of a possible U.S. strike and went to the al-Qaeda fighters with an open Koran, pleading with them to leave-and offering them about $10,000 to do so. Then the al-Qaeda men appeared in the village with their wives and children, all wearing funeral shrouds, according to Din Mohammad Darwish, a local radio technician. They cried, "You're sending us to our graves!" The villagers backed down.

Infighting among local warlords in the region allowed al-Qaeda to mass there. "We were busy with clashes of power," says Afghan commander Abdul Mateen Hassan Khel, sitting in an office in the provincial capital of Gardez, with 40 Russian tanks rusting outside his window. "Pockets of al-Qaeda from Jalalabad and other places were able to move in with them, so many are there now." Whether or not bin Laden and his top lieutenants are in the region, the known commanders are ripe enough targets. They include Ibrahim Haqqani, whose brother, a Taliban leader sought by the U.S., is thought to be hiding in Pakistan; Latif Mansour, the former Taliban Minister for Agriculture; and Saifur Rahman Mansoor, Latif's nephew, a former Taliban military commander in his early 30s.

The young Mansoor has become a legend in the region. His supporters claim he has said he would prefer to die fighting than live under U.S. occupation.  The son of a famed mujahedin who was killed by a car bomb in 1993, he seems to have tried to make a deal with Wardak to surrender his forces when an American attack became imminent. But local feuds got in the way; Mansoor led his troops into the mountains, where they had already made preparations.

Wardak says that in the tiny villages that cling to the slopes, al-Qaeda fighters had been buying the houses with mud walls, like miniature medieval fortresses. "Those who didn't want to sell," Wardak told Time, "were asked to leave." Some al-Qaeda fighters hunkered down; high above the valley floor, others headed for the caves that Mansoor's father had dug 20 years ago.

The attack Mansoor expected finally came on Saturday morning, March 2, after being postponed for 48 hours because of bad weather. At Bagram, Colonel Frank Wiercinski told his men that this would be a "defining moment" in their lives. Echoing the motto of the 10th Mountain Division, he said, "This is your climb to glory." The helicopters took off and flew south. The division, heading for battle position Eve, attacked the villages of Sarkhankhel, Marzak and Babakul, taking al-Qaeda by surprise. "The bad guys were drinking tea when we arrived," says Hagenbeck. "Our snipers," says one soldier, "whacked a whole lot of people."

But almost immediately, other Americans ran into far more trouble than they had bargained for. At battle position Ginger, Grippe found hundreds of enemy fighters waiting. "They came at us with mortars, rpgs, and light and heavy machine guns," he told Time. "From a blocking mission, it turned into a reconnaissance force on an al-Qaeda stronghold." Grippe radioed to base for reinforcements and was told that none could get through the hail of fire. He was ordered to hold out until after dark, when evacuation would be possible.

It was still only 7 a.m. Grippe's team spent the day fighting off Taliban and al-Qaeda incursions. "My men were whacking people from 400 to 500 meters," he said, "but there were also gunfights. We're talking nose to nose." Incessant mortar fire kept men pinned, squirming, to the ground.

"With small arms, you can fight back," says Sergeant David Smith, who was hit twice. "But with mortars, you can't do anything much about it. We had to just lie on the ground and basically take it." By the time the first rescue helicopters arrived at 8 p.m., the 10th Mountain had 17 wounded. One man lost two toes; another had to have blood pumped out of his lungs. "We'd just been in a gunfight for 18 hours," Smith told Time, before correcting himself. "I would say the gunfight lasted for 17 hours and 58 minutes. The first two minutes weren't bad."

Amazingly, the companies at the south of the valley did not suffer an American fatality that first day. Things went less well in the northwest, where a force of Afghans led by General Ziahuddin, accompanied by American special forces, was to enter the valley from Zurmat. Abdul Sabur, a young Afghan, had signed on with the Americans for $200 a month, plus a mountain parka, a new Kalashnikov assault rifle and the promise of meat at least once a day. The risks seemed worth it; Sabur's own commander had not paid him for months.

That Saturday morning, the convoy headed east along a muddy, rutted road.  Sabur was in the back of a brightly colored pickup; two Americans sat in the cabin, and another team of special forces followed them. As the truck splashed around a muddy bend, Sabur told Time, "al-Qaeda opened fire on us with something big." In a mud-brick hut was hidden an antiaircraft gun or mortar. Munitions ripped through the cabin. Sabur took shrapnel in his leg.

The convoy returned fire and called in air support. Three helicopters thundered up the canyon, blasting away at enemy positions. A few days later, another Afghan from the convoy showed a Time reporter the truck, lying on its side in a ditch. "When we'd finished," he said, "all the Arabs were dead." So were three Afghans and one American. Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman, 34, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., who had been in the cabin of Sabur's truck, was flown to Bagram, where he received last rites.

Intense fighting continued through Tuesday and Wednesday. In the first five days of the battle, some 500 bombs and missiles were dropped on the valley.

Gunships raked al-Qaeda positions, killing hundreds. "You could hear the AC-130 bombers circling above in the clouds, then this slow thud, thud, thud," said Marine Captain Jeff Pool. "Then these great showers of dust would rise up from the valley floor." By the weekend, snow and freezing rain returned, and American commanders had to decide whether to risk more casualties by going after those fighters-maybe 200 of them-still in the caves.

The battle, said an emotional President Bush in Florida last week, "is a sign of what is going to happen for a while." In the war against terrorism, more American casualties are inevitable. One day, perhaps, Americans will tire of the slow drip of deaths-three here, five there-of the sort that old colonial powers like France and Britain once learned to endure. That hasn't happened yet; Shah-i-Kot marks the first time in many years that Americans have died in battle on a foreign field without a sense of outrage and shame at home. After 18 Army Rangers and special forces died at the battle of Mogadishu in 1993-the subject of the film Black Hawk Down-some relatives of the dead thought their sons had been betrayed by their political leaders, while many citizens felt guilty about allowing men to be placed in danger for an ill-defined purpose.

This time is different. Twenty-eight Americans have died in the war since October, but the national mood remains resolute. Here, without argument, is one way in which Sept. 11 truly has changed the way we think. "The American public," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a military scholar, "is sensible about war and amazingly stoical." Who, six months ago, would have dared say that?

You may read an extended version of this account in SgtMacsBar CCT Stories "Ambush".  There is also a fisrt hand account of the actions and a few other comments.  Please send me any stories you have.  SgtMac