Over the past two weeks, I have been part of a unique mission. During 10 months in Afghanistan, this was the first time I was able to engage in "street fighting" combat to clear enemy insurgents from Afghan villages. The other experiences with combat were from vehicles during ambush, from fixed positions fighting off attack, or on the receiving end of mortar or missile fire.
Closing with enemy fighters "man to man" on the ground is the toughest and tests the mettle of all involved. During this operation, we worked with special operations forces, Afghan Army soldiers, Afghan Police and were supported by soldiers from the United Kingdom (of note: Prince Harry was one of the UK soldiers in support). We had actionable intelligence that enemy fighters massed in two to three large villages and our mission was to clear them out. A challenging part of our task was to separate and protect the Afghan civilians while fighting. In other words, we could not just call in artillery or air strikes, we had to surgically find and remove the bad guys. Our element was the "main effort," with job of putting people on the ground, including me.
On the first day of the operation, we moved forward in vehicles until arriving at the last "covered and concealed" position before the objective village. At that point, we received communication from another special operations unit: multiple Taliban in the objective village had fired from the village Mosque in the center of town. This other element had surrounded the Mosque and enemy fighters and believed the Mosque compound contained no civilians. An air strike was coordinated to destroy the fighters in the Mosque by taking out the compound. Unfortunately, just before missiles were launched, women and children were seen leaving the Mosque compound. The air support mission was called off. As I was one of the men who would enter the village on foot, this was an ominous sign. We knew it was right not to risk civilian death in the bombing run, but also knew it put us at much higher risk. Using Mosques and civilians as "protection" is the common tactic of the Taliban. While quite cowardly, it is admittedly effective.
When we came over the ridge and dismounted, the Afghan Forces went just ahead of U.S. advisers. We entered the first compound of the village and almost immediately took fire from a small enclosure to a tunnel in the ground. The firing Taliban insurgent quickly ducked into the tunnel, as we figured out how to get him (while searching the rest of the compound). The initial solution was to "smoke" him out with a concentrated smoke grenade. However, this did not work. We soon discovered enemy fighters had an elaborate system of tunnels leading up to the village and throughout. To ensure this insurgent wasn't hiding close to the opening, we threw in a hand grenade. Searching the other compounds and going down the streets was equally intensive. As we knew fighters could "pop out" anywhere, we had to keep security in all directions, including up and down. When we found civilians, we had to quickly get the fighting-aged males to a holding area and separate out the women and children.
As we moved toward the Mosque (after a few other small gun battles), we saw a Taliban victim in the road. The man, probably suspected as a spy, had been executed with a shot to the back of his head a few hours earlier. The bullet and brain matter came out the front of his head/face so it was not a nice sight. For a couple of our newer soldiers, this was the first dead body they had seen "up close." A grim reminder of who we fought, but also a reminder of how quickly life can end if not vigilant. As we moved farther up the village, we came under mortar and then machine-gun fire. Around this time, an enemy fighter came up the street on motorcycle. As he saw us, he quickly reeled around to get away but was shot dead by one of our soldiers. That night, we questioned fighting-aged males and over-watched the village to prevent reinfiltration. We then we recleared the village the next day before moving on to our next objective.
The next village was another suspected Taliban stronghold. We were told the enemy would likely use improvised explosive devices and ambushes in the route up to the village from the direction of high ground (our route). Thankfully, this did not happen as we moved into place. However, our force quickly took effective sniper fire from a compound on the edge of the village. We pulled back a safe distance and called in a close air mission, which destroyed the compound with a 500-pound bomb. As we moved forward back into the village, the mission started similar to the first village.
However, after a bit of time moving in, we again began taking effective fire from a compound. As with the first close air support mission, the fighters were eliminated before we moved forward. During the day, we had a few "pop shot" incidents and were able to eliminate Taliban attempting to retreat. At night, while overwatching the village, we received intelligence of multiple Taliban massing to attack our position. Close air support was able to pound the enemy trench line throughout the night while we watched from under a mile away.
We had similar experiences as described above over the next couple of days. Each night, we slept on the ground in between pulling security rotations. This area of Afghanistan saw warm days but below-freezing nights, so sleep was rather intermittent. During this time, we were able to call in 2,000 bomb strikes to destroy enemy tunnels and hide-out/cashes leading into the villages. On the last day of the operation, our Afghan Forces spotted multiple enemy fighters. We chased them into a compound. This is an experience I will not forget. Think about it: You know the enemy fighters are somewhere in the compound and wait to see them with each turn and each room you search. You have switched your rifle from "safe" to "fire" and know you will have a split second to pull the trigger to kill up close. At the same time, you know some civilians might be in the compound so you will have to discriminate before firing. You expect to be shot at with each step: Looking up, looking behind, looking at holes, etc. In this case, the enemy fighters got away through a well hole and tunnel (we later found and arrested them outside the compound).
As the above description makes clear, ground combat in the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan is tough. The two weeks of this operation "wiped out" everyone participating. The enemy we face does not wear uniforms and makes every effort to "hide" behind civilians. Soldiers are stuck finding ways to separate fighters from civilians and must decide whether or not to kill based on various factors. If the soldier is wrong and doesn't fire, he will be quickly shot. If he believes a civilian to be an enemy fighter and kills, he must live with the consequences. He faces death from so many directions and venues. Yet, he must always focus on a prime imperative of counter-insurgency: Winning over the civilian population.
One minute the soldier may be shooting at an insurgent. However, the next minute that same soldier must hand out humanitarian aid and reassure women and children. Our soldiers face these difficult circumstances while they also think about their own families. Will they return to their families alive and in one piece and while maintaining their humanity through the carnage of war? Let all Americans pray these heroes do come back and come back as better men despite the hell of war.
Bill Connor, an Orangeburg resident and Columbia attorney, is a lieutenant colonel in the South Carolina National Guard. He leads the U.S. advisory effort in one of the four provinces of the Southern Region of Afghanistan.