Originally published June 13, 2010
CHAMKANI, Afghanistan – It’s 2:30 a.m. Saturday at Forward Operating Base Chamkani.
Overhead, the sky shimmers with endless starlight. The valley below is pitch-dark.
All of Afghanistan, or so it appears, is sleeping.
But here, on this mountainside base shared by the U.S. military and the Afghan Border Police, the day is already well under way.
Cigarettes glow like fireflies among the small knots of Maine Army National Guard soldiers still rubbing a half-night’s sleep from their eyes.
Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn looks out at the silhouettes of First Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, his face etched with concentration.
“My biggest concern right now is keeping track of all these elements and making sure they do what they have to do,” Bosse says. “Putting all of this together, making sure you don’t lose somebody — that’s a real chore when you’re operating at night.”
A short distance away, laughter erupts among a group of young soldiers.
“They seem nervous, don’t they?” asks Bosse, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Truth be told, no one would blame these soldiers if they had a few butterflies.
Over the next eight hours, First Platoon will become the Afghanistan war in microcosm — a group of American soldiers working side by side with a patchwork of Afghan security forces to put a dent, however small, in the Taliban-driven insurgency.
It’s called a “cordon-and-knock” operation.
The objective: First, move quietly on foot through the pre-dawn darkness to three targets — two residential compounds and a nearby outdoor waste dump — in the nearby village of Meydani, where long-standing intelligence reports indicate insurgent weapons and explosives might be stockpiled.
Then, just as the sun comes up, lock down the sites inside a tight perimeter and search them top to bottom.
And finally, keep an eye out for one or more “high-value targets” — locals suspected of insurgent activity in this increasingly dangerous valley eight miles west of Bravo Company’s home base at Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan.
First Platoon arrived here by convoy Friday afternoon to prepare for the operation, which also includes elements of the Army’s Special Forces, the regional Afghanistan Border Police, the national Afghanistan Uniform Police and an Afghan special forces unit.
The complicated plan, laid out for all in a 40-minute PowerPoint presentation by Bosse on Friday afternoon, requires pinpoint timing, clear communications via interpreters (or “terps”) across the English-Pashtu language divide and, to be sure, a little luck.
“It’s like coaching a Little League team — only with guns,” says Bosse with a chuckle as the dozens of men in various uniforms prepare to march down the steep hill, out FOB Chamkani’s main gate and into an area where Taliban insurgents roam freely.
3:35 a.m.: With just a hint of morning light outlining the mountain peaks to the east, the long column moves out — keeping to the outskirts of Chamkani’s downtown area to avoid attracting attention.
But already, the element of surprise is in jeopardy.
First one dog barks at the sound of the soldiers’ footsteps. Then another and another and another, until a symphony of barking, yelping and howling follows the soldiers wherever they go.
“There’s no such thing as real surprise in Afghanistan,” muses Bosse. “Unless you drop a helicopter right on top of them.”
The barking mercifully fades as the soldiers leave Chamkani and head east toward Meydani.
The two-mile hike begins on a paved “hardball” road but quickly turns south into a maze of farm fields separated by sun-baked, earthen berms and irrigation ditches.
Outside a small clutch of ancient-looking stone homes, an elderly Afghan man in a white tunic stands in a doorway and stares at the soldiers as they pass. He says nothing.
A short time later, Sgt. Frederick Moody of Gorham, a member of Bravo Company’s intelligence unit, spots a similarly dressed man moving parallel with the platoon across a vast open field.
“I think that’s the same guy we passed a little while ago,” Moody says, his high-tech binoculars fixed on the distant figure.
The march presses on over waist-high wheat fields, past pungent patches of marijuana that grow wild everywhere throughout this region and through the knee-deep, fast-moving waters of Darya-ye (River) Chamkani.
Eventually, the platoon splits into two groups.
One, led by platoon leader Lt. Patrick Foley of Norwood, Mass., heads to the waste dump and one of the residential compounds.
The other, led by Staff Sgt. Anthony Marson of Richmond with oversight by Bosse, zeroes in on the other compound.
Quickly and silently, Marson’s soldiers and their Afghan counterparts take their positions along rock walls below the compound and high atop the ridges above.
As the first ray of sun clears the horizon, the soldiers have the place surrounded.
5 a.m.: Afghan advance units report that a Taliban member believed to sometimes live inside the maze of stone rooms and open passageways is nowhere to be found.
But his brother, a suspect in recent improvised explosive device, or IED, attacks against American and Afghan forces, is quickly identified by Afghan officers and detained.
Bosse dispatches Spc. Jeffery Cantara of Biddeford and Sgt. Nikolas Edwards of Livermore to search the compound alongside a group of Afghan officers and two local elders.
“I appreciate your cooperation,” Bosse tells the elders through an interpreter. “We want to make this as easy as possible for everybody and still do our job.”
After almost an hour, during which a young man serves hot chai and bread to Bosse and others in the search party, Cantara and Edwards return with about a dozen Afghan men of various ages in tow.
“We didn’t find anything,” reports Edwards, as the Afghan men squat nearby, nervously stroking their long beards.
“There’s probably about 20 children in there,” notes Cantara. “And probably a dozen women.”
(Not once do the women, who Cantara says were all fully covered in black burkas, appear even at the entrance or windows of the compound.)
6:15 a.m.: The compound search over, the squad turns its attention to the man who has been detained.
Bosse explains to him that he’ll be brought to FOB Chamkani, where his skin will be tested for exposure to explosives.
“If you even touched them in the last week, we’re going to find out,” Bosse says. “So cooperate with us now and give us information and we’ll be able to help you out a little.”
The man says he knows nothing. As a small group of young Afghan boys looks on, an Afghan Uniform Police officer puts him in handcuffs and leads him away.
Bosse turns his attention to the boys, shaking their hands and asking them where they go to school.
“You guys have a good day,” he finally tells them. “Stay out of trouble — and don’t play with IEDs.”
The boys all smile and wave as the search party pulls out.
Bosse says the detained man, assuming he tests negative for explosives, probably will be questioned and released.
But he makes no apologies for arresting someone he firmly believes has Taliban connections.
“I’m all about being a pain in their ass,” Bosse says.
7:35 a.m.: After marching for a half mile across a patchwork of cultivated fields, Bosse and Marson’s squad reconnect with part of Foley’s element under a long row of shade trees.
There they wait for over an hour while soldiers under the direction of Staff Sgt. Benjamin Straubel of Hermon and Staff Sgt. Brett Johnson of Holden complete their searches of the other two targets.
The Afghan boys have caught up with the soldiers — and one has brought along his handmade slingshot.
“Here,” says Sgt. 1st Class David Frahm of Auburn, placing an empty plastic water bottle on a rock wall. “See what you can do with this.”
The young boy reaches down, puts a pebble in the slingshot, pulls and fires. It misses.
He tries again. This time, the rock sends the bottle flying into the air with a loud “thunk.”
The soldiers applaud. The boy beams.
Bosse, who’s been busy taking pictures of the boys on his digital camera and then showing them the results, gives two of them each a pen.
“We win them, then we win,” he says, motioning toward the enthralled youngsters. “We don’t, then we lose.”
8:50 a.m.: The searches have all been completed. Alas, nothing has been found at any of the three sites.
But the mission is far from over.
Rather than march back the way they came, Bosse orders his men to hike back out to Route Chimpanzee, the paved road, and then march back to the base directly through downtown Chamkani.
For all the U.S. military convoys that have passed through the crowded marketplace in recent years, no unit this size has ever done it on foot.
The soldiers walk in two columns, leaving several yards between one another to minimize the risk of a multiple-casualty attack.
Once again, no Afghan women can be seen anywhere on the street, sidewalks or open doorways.
But the men and boys are everywhere — and they all stop to watch this most unexpected parade.
Some smile. A few even wave. But most just stare blankly as the procession of camouflage, Kevlar and high-powered weaponry passes them by.
“It’s different,” says Spc. Chase Hinkley of Old Town as he walks along with his M-240 Bravo machine gun. “And a little nerve-racking.”
“Some of them are friendly,” notes Pfc. Jason Chapman of Hollis as he makes his way down the middle of the street watching the Afghan men and boys watch him.
“And some are like, ‘Why the hell are you guys here?”‘ Chapman continued. “They see American and they think ‘In trucks. Never come out.’ ”
10:30 a.m.: The last soldiers from First Platoon walk through the gate back into FOB Chamkani.
Lt. Foley, the platoon leader, trudges up the hill and signs off his radio frequency.
No weapons or explosives found. One person detained. And an all-American, boots-on-the-pavement finale like this town has never seen.
Is he happy with the outcome?
“Yes,” Foley replies.
“People know now that we’re willing and able to walk into that area,” Foley replies.
Company commander Bosse, who’s shaken more hands today than a politician on Election Day, agrees.
“This was probably the biggest show of (anti-Taliban) force these people have seen — ever,” Bosse says. “Just being out. Just having these people see you try to do something. That’s a positive.”
The weary soldiers pile back into their armored vehicles and head back to COP Dand wa Patan.
Only time will tell.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be reached at 791-6323 or at: