KUNAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN - It was two nights after Christmas on a fortified dirt hill called Combat Outpost Badel.
2nd Platoon, Able Co. 2-503rd soldiers had strung Christmas lights along the improvised roof beams of their sandbagged bunkers. They munched homemade cookies sent in care packages. Their platoon had just taken over running the outpost from the previous unit, but there was little holiday cheer.
The young soldiers were mostly sleep deprived. The privates pulled hours of guard shift. At dusk, all heads scanned the mountains outlined in the distinct green of their night vision goggles. They got shot at about every third day. In fact, Christmas marked the rookies' first firefight. Their helmet cams recorded the staccato of automatic guns and red tracers and shouts. Afterwards, they collected and replayed the shaky video and laughed at the things theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d said during their first unforgettable minutes under fire.
2nd Platoon's leadership shook their heads at all the enthusiasm. They were sergeants, most younger than twenty-five, but already veterans of a bloody 2008 tour to Kunar where they'd logged over 1,100 sustained shooting matches with the Taliban. They'd lost friends to ambushes; steel bracelets bore the engraved names of those who didn't come back.
(Above right: Narang High School teacher Rahman Jan Ehsas, a teacher of 40 years, who says his students were killed.)
New rules for a new fight
But Dec. 27th saw a different kind of contact. Soldiers on guard observed a convoy of strange vehicles passing through their checkpoint. They were neither regular Army nor Afghan Army, but clearly military. The platoon leader, Lt. Richard Hill, heard news on the radio inside the rock and sandbagged bunker that served as his command center and sleeping quarters. A combined force of U.S. and Afghan soldiers had entered the Badel Valley under the cover of night.
Regular Army units, even those as rugged as 2nd Platoon of 2-503rd, are not allowed by their command to venture up toward the village of Badel unless a combat operation has been approved at the highest levels. It is deemed too great a risk without the coverage of helicopter guns and rockets. But this unit was headed there, and under cover of night. To the soldiers it meant one thing -- Special Forces (SF).
The Badel Valley leads to a village of the same name. While the lower valley area has seen increased trade and fewer bombs as a result of the paved highway connecting Jalabad to Asadabad, the higher valleys like Badel are rife with wood smuggling operations, whose proceeds are said to benefit Taliban weapons movement along the Pakistani border, less than 10 miles away. By all accounts it's not in these villages' interests to work with the coalition or government. An Apr. 10 Wall Street Journal article exposed how a central government ban on wood cutting in the name of conservation has led to a Taliban-controlled wood smuggling economy, much as poppy cultivation is supporting the Taliban in the South.
That night Special Forces were conducting a raid in Badel. 2nd Platoon, which was closest, would learn this over their radio, but had no involvement in the actual operation. However, 3rd Platoon was called from Base Fortress to provide outer security. According to one of 3rdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sergeants, the Platoon traveled the more difficult Route Brown into the valley, but by the time they closed in on Badel they were stalled by gunfire coming from the village. By then the Special Force mission had already been completed.
They had surrounded the target compound in the early morning hours. They ordered the occupants out of the house. None came out. Then shots were allegedly fired at the Special Forces. They responded with heavy fire. After the shooting ended, the Special Forces were lifted out of the valley in helicopters.
Aftermath of the raid
"There are at least five different versions of what happened that night," said. Lt. Richard Hill, 2nd Platoon of Able Co.
From Able CompanyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s end, reliable intelligence reported a Taliban commander had been holding a recruiting session inside the compound. They say Special Forces missed the commander by 30 minutes. The local government says the intelligence was right, but the wrong compound was targeted. Villagers say ten innocent students were killed.
NATO sources said the compound housed known bomb makers. A carefully researched London Times Online article from Feb. 25th reported, "NATOÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s statement, issued four days after the event, said that troops were attacked 'from several buildings' as they entered the village. Yesterday it said that, 'ultimately, we did determine this to be a civilian casualty incident'."
The New York Times reported in a March 15th article that nine students had been killed at a religious school, and cited it as one of three examples of why Special Forces command would be brought under more centralized control, under ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Even though top coalition officials conceded the raid was a mistake, officers and intelligence sources on the ground still disagree, and local villagers still blame them.
"That intelligence would have been very good if it was thirty minutes sooner," said Mike, a military intelligence gatherer who works with Able Co. "Thirty minutes is a world. ... It's the difference between right and wrong, good and bad here."
"If we could spin up operations in thirty minutes, we could act on intel," Mike said. "Unfortunately, 'Big Army' has hampered us a lot. We have to spin up a patrol request. It has to be approved."
Special Forces, Mike said, is the only Army unit able to coordinate patrols in short enough time spans to act on the intelligence. But even they weren't quick enough this time.
The Afghans in the valley are bound to believe the worst. The further one travels into the mountains, the less the villages have any use for the provincial government. Americans offer projects with a handshake, but there are so many requests and a budget now limited to working directly with the district government.
I've ridden with 2nd Platoon in Humvees up to the village of Subagar, several villages closer than Badel, to meet with key leaders. Instead of a meeting, after they helped distribute sacks of rice and flour, we were pinned down by sniper fire for the better part of an hour.
(Students from Narang High School, where the killed students were enrolled.)
"They were my students"
The local population's opinion, according to two Army interpreters who live and work with 2nd Platoon at Badel, is that nine students were killed because bad information was given to U.S. and Afghan Special Forces.
Rahman Jan Ehsas, a teacher of 40 years, originally from Badel village, knew all of the young men killed. They were his students. Six were family members, he says. Mr. Ehsas said all the students were in class that day at Narang High School. The raid occurred around 2:30 A.M. the following morning.
"Someone called from Badel to say some of your relatives are dead. I saw a lot of Apache helicopters moving over BadelÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ When I got there, the parents brought them out from the houses. I saw the dead bodies. All nine lived in Badel."
(Mr. Rahman said the young men killed ranged from 8th to 12th grade -- Rahimullah, 18; Matiullah, 17; Ataullah, 16; Subhamullah, 17; Atiqullah, 16; Najeedullah, 17; Samiullah, 13; Ismail, 13; Abdul Khaliq, 20, a farmer; and Smar Gul, 13. According to locals, all these students were sleeping in the same room, which in Afghan culture, is not that uncommon, when the attack occurred.)
"The whole family works in the government," Mr. Ehsas said. "Every day they were present in school."
After the shooting, he led a group that went to the Kunar governor. The governor called President Hamid Karzai. Karzai confirmed the intelligence was wrong. He promised to get the U.S. to surrender the source. (Considering how Special Forces operate and that much of the source information was said to be electronic monitoring, this seems doubtful.) The family of the students was invited to Kabul, where Mr. Ehsas says Karzai spoke to them directly and 100,000 Afghanis (approx. $2,000) was given for each student killed.
The Narang Sub-governor, Gulam Nabi, has a slightly different version of the story. He was appointed by Governor Falzullah Wahidi, who was himself appointed by President Karzai in 2007.
Sub-governor Nabi said 10 guys were killed -- eight students and two guests. He said that Americans received information that Taliban leaders were conducting a shura (meeting) in the village that night, but the shura was actually in a different house, and the "bad guys" had already left by the time they arrived. Special Forces returned fire at the wrong house, he said, weaving a politically expedient answer -- neither disagreeing with the villagers nor fully agreeing with U.S. Forces.
"Whenever it happens, a U.S. General comes to discuss it with us," Sub-governor Nabi said. "The people were starting protests (the following day), and we sent the village elders to talk with the General who came from Bagram (Air Base). The General asked if they got the right guys. We said, No, they were students, they were innocent."
(2nd Platoon soldier returning fire in the Badel Valley.)
"You know, sometimes they give bad intel to get revenge," said the interpreter, who declined to be named, citing the common belief that some Afghans give false intelligence to coalition forces in order to resolve their own blood feuds or rivalries.
The interpreter described the flood of local anti-coalition media reports stemming from the raid in the following days. "The news said that 14-15 year olds had been killed. There were protests all over the Narang district. They showed the student's teacher crying. ... Local TV went to the site of the killings. They interviewed Capt. Snowden, commander of Able Co. The Captain told the news stations the occupants refused to come out of the house when they ordered them to, and that they shot at the Special Forces."
"The intel was right, but we lost the PR war," said Able Co. Commander, Capt. Joseph Snowden. "I'm confident they hit the right target," Capt. Snowden said. "We had intel stacked in three ways." Although he didn't elaborate, he probably meant that in addition to human sources, the U.S. military had telecommunications and remote visual monitoring of the target house.
Captain Snowden's Able Company has been engaged in the most firefights in the battalion. Many of his non-commissioned officers are going to have slogged 27 months in Kunar when they finally leave Afghanistan. They are frustrated they can't go further into the mountains and raid suspected enemy compounds as they could in '07-08.
"Last deployment I felt like I was doing something," Sgt. Aaron Dawson, 22, said. "This deployment I don't, and it bothers me."
Special Forces have wider latitude, and this is considered by critics to be part of the problem. Regular Army units are now directed to operate in counter-insurgency mode, to win the hearts and minds of people by ensuring security and promoting good governance, but a single Special Forces raid, like the one in Badel, can turn whole villages against them.
"I tried to explain to the people that Special Forces did this," the interpreter said. "They say Special Forces are Americans too."
Able Co. was told to help manage the scene. Snowden described 40 or so angry, grieving people in the vicinity of one of his other platoons.
"I don't know if you've ever been in that situation of being first on the scene after a targeted hit," Snowden asked me. "We experienced it in Iraq. Women beating their faces, men yelling... We were lucky. We pulled back, or there might have been an incident," he said, implying the emotions were so high, villagers might have provoked his soldiers, or vice versa.
Capt. Joseph Snowden also attempted to quell the villagers' anger at the meeting arranged by the Sub-governor. According to the interpreter, the elder selected to speak for the village said, "Give us the source of the bad intel. We want to kill him."
There's also some history of civilian casualties in the Badel Valley. According to the same interpreter, during 1-10th Mountain's deployment last year, a mortar accidentally hit a house close to the Badel Outpost, killing two occupants. "Everyone was pissed off," he said. "The unit promised to build them a well, but the contractors only half completed it."
An incident like this leads villagers, who get most of their information via word of mouth or from their local Mullah, to paint every American unit with a broad brush.
"They (SF) made the right target, but it may not have helped us," Snowden said. Lt. Hill also agrees the raid may have set back his platoon's counter-insurgency operations. "They were in and out, and we were stuck holding the check," Hill said.
In March, I accompanied 2nd Platoon on three missions into the Badel valley. Each time they were ambushed with fire from more than one direction, with the kind of accuracy, or maybe proximity, of fire that makes one feel an enemy is actually trying to kill and not just harass them.
But the Special Forces raid and attacks in the valley don't necessarily share any causality. This is Kunar province, after all. Kunar has always had a tribal identity. Its people revere former Mujahadeen commanders who fought the Soviets to a standstill shooting from mountain ambushes and then blending back into the population. The Pashtuns are deeply tribal and removed from the capital's social and political influences. One might say fighting foreign governments, even Kabul's, is a part of their identity.
Mr. Ehsas has seen many phases of U.S. operations here. "At first, when the U.S. came we were happy to see them," he said. "But after two or three bad things -- first, the U.S. captured 14 guys during Ramadan ... This time 10 guys were killed. Now people from the valley are upset. Now no one believes that U.S. guys come here to help."
"We need to include the Taliban in the big Jirga (all-important meeting)," he said -- a suggestion that is not far off from what seems to be happening at the highest levels- a political, not combat solution.
"It's better to have a Jirga with the bad guys. There would be no killing."
James Foley, currently embedded with US forces in Afghanistan, is an international correspondent for Raw Story.