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Anaconda - A Novella for Covid Shutins

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There are a number of authors out there who, during this difficult time, have placed some of their works or ongoing creation on line for folks to read while isolating. I've decided to throw my own hat into the ring and am therefore going to publish on a daily basis chapters from my novella "Anaconda" (© 2012). It introduces the two principle characters Kurt Richter and Phil Sambrook (and a few others) from my "Allies" series and is a fictionalized account of the historical battle of the Shah-i-Kot Valley in Afghanistan in 2002

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To Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker
From all Canadians who unreservedly honor your sacrifice and that of your comrades.

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PROLOGUE

Takur Ghar, Paktia Province, Afghanistan
Saturday 2 Mar 2002 0510 hrs AFT

Norowz Mohamand remained seated on his ragged carpet facing Qiblah which from here was towards the west. He held his hands cupped towards himself and offered a Du’ah—a personal prayer—as was his custom after completing Salah.
“ALLAHUM-MA ANTAS-SALAM WA-MINKAS-SALAM,” O Allah, You are the Author of peace and from You comes peace.
He continued to remain on his knees as members of his jama’at—the ever dwindling congregation of his fighters—their Fajr, the morning prayer—completed, made their way back to the field kitchen. The chai would be ready soon and there was plentiful flatbread, nuts, raisins, dates and even yogurt. Their supplies had been increasing continuously, meals being sent to the valley from a friendly village to the west. A great change from the setbacks of the last few months.
It had snowed the last two days both here on the mountain and in the valleys below. Up here the snow had not melted and lay about a half meter deep. In places a meter or more had drifted in. Only on the steepest slopes had the snow slid off to expose the bare rock beneath. In the western valley almost 800 meters below, the temperature was generally above freezing in the daytime but up here, on the top of the tallest mountain in the region, it rarely made it above freezing this time of year. At night it was always much colder. Still, he would conduct ritual ablutions with water or snow and conduct Salah in bare feet.
The valley to the west—the Lower Shah-i-Kot—and its surrounding mountains was the main base for what was now a ragtag group of almost a thousand refugee fighters that had come together here in this last stand against the invaders. The valley had four main villages and had stood as a fortress against invaders for as long as the stories had been told. Most recently, just over fifteen years ago, it had been the infidel Russians who had attacked the western side of the valley—they never reached the mountain slopes on its east side where Norowz was now posted. Then the valley had been under the control of Malawi Nasrullah Mansoor of the Harakat-e-Inqilab-i-Islami. He had turned it into a fortified supply and base camp, building trenches, bunkers, mined areas, obstacles, even a hospital fully dug into the ground. It had been stocked with supplies of all natures, from clothing to foodstuffs to weapons and ammunition. Mansoor had been a great friend of foreign fighters who came to Afghanistan for jihad providing them shelter, a place to train and, of course, taking significant payments from the Wahhabis and Deobandis for the privilege.
After his death in 1993, his son Saifur took over the operations here, continuing to provide a safe haven for the foreigners, many of whom now bore the al-Qaeda mantel. The valley fairly bristled with older soviet weapons: eight D-30 122mm howitzers; an M-30 122mm howitzer; a ZIS-3 76mm gun; an S-60 57mm anti aircraft gun; a ZPU-1 12.7mm anti aircraft gun; several DShK 12.7 mm machine guns; SA-7 Strella Surface to Air missiles; 82mm and 120mm mortars; and untold rocket propelled grenades. Most important there was ammunition—untold vast quantities hidden inside caves dug deep into the mountains.
To protect these, the defenses had been significantly strengthened. Bunkers had been reinforced with concrete. Mortar base plates were cemented into position and registered onto all likely approach paths. Soviet style dug-in strongpoints with interconnected fighting positions for riflemen and crew served weapons were established throughout the valley and the mountain sides. Outlying security checkpoints and picquets were established. Landmines were laid in gaps and across the natural approach routes and then were covered by the fire of strongpoints. A command and control system was put into place.
When the American supported Northerners progressed in their attack of southern and eastern Afghanistan, all families, including the al-Qaeda ones were moved out of the valley to Pakistan, and the defenses were manned full-time. As fighters fell back from other engagements they swelled the numbers in the valley making it possible to man the outer cordon, the defenses in the village and the ones in the mountain simultaneously.


Norowz was a rarity amongst the Taliban in this part of Afghanistan. He was actually born in and had lived his life in Afghanistan. Most of those here were foreigners, remnants of the Sheik’s 55th Brigade. Even the Taliban here were mostly from Pakistan although that really didn’t matter because the border that separated Afghan Pashtuns from their Pakistani cousins was artificial: the infamous Durand line created by the colonial British and the Russians as they vied for influence in the northwest corner of South Asia.
Further, he had not been a Madrasah educated scholar of the Qur’an. What he was recognized as was a devoted and devout leader and a fierce fighter. In a movement known for its extreme Deobandi fundamentalism his pragmatic approach to problem solving was accepted despite his inability to refer to dogmatic religious principles to support his decisions. That is not to say that he was found wanting in his devotion to Islam or to Pashtunwali, the cultural and social norms that governed Pashtuns on both sides of the border.
Norowz was born into the Noorzai branch of the Duranni tribe in Panjwaii, a district about thirty kilometers west of the city of Kandahar. The Panjwaii district itself did not have a large population, somewhat fewer than 80,000, but they farmed lush fields irrigated by the Arghandab River and straddling the Herat-Kandahar Highway. While the area could sustain any crops, its chief cash crop was opium poppies and marijuana. Even though they produced nowhere near the volume of nearby Helmand province, Panjwaii's farmers reaped enormous profits from their operations. Unfortunately, they had paid a price. A plethora of corrupt warlords blocked roads for tolls, extorted payments from merchants and in general harassed the countryside.
When in early 1994 a mullah from the town of Sang-i-Hsar gathered together a group of thirty former anti-soviet mujahideen comrades to free two girls kidnapped and raped by a local warlord, Norowz was there. Norowz had been impressed with the mullah’s altruistic values to halt the corruption rampant throughout southern Afghanistan. Taking up his AK-47, Norowz, then in his mid-thirties, joined the movement full-time before it had but fifty members. Thus Mullah Mohammed Omar and Norowz Mohammad and their comrades marched off to fight corruption and bring order to the land.
In September 1994, after a brief skirmish at the border town of Spin Boldak, the Taliban captured almost eight hundred truckloads of arms and ammunition stored in the caves there since the collapse of the Soviets. Norowz was there leading a ten man team. Soon thousands had joined including thousands of young students from Pakistani madrasahs. Norowz’s command had grown to a hundred.
The Taliban displaced and hanged rival warlords, removed their toll gathering checkpoints from the roads and generally brought stability and improved commerce in Southern Afghanistan. By year's end Kandahar had fallen; in September 1995 Herat fell; and one year later Kabul itself went down. Subsequent to the fall of Kabul the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency, who had supported the mujahideen against the Soviets, shifted their support from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the Taliban.
The next five years saw Norowz and the Taliban forces continue their fight against heavy resistance in Northern Afghanistan. By then the Taliban army consisted of some 20,000 soldiers from the Pakistani army, another 8,000 Pakistani militants, 3,000 foreign fighters under al-Qaeda and some 14,000 who, like Norowz, were actually Afghanis. Being Afghan meant little to Norowz. Above all his allegiance went to the Pashtun tribal group that widely straddled the Durand line.
Norowz was short in stature, just over five feet four inches tall and stout, weighing close to 200 lbs. Wherever the fighting was thickest, there he would be in his calf length, rusty-red shalwar kameez with an old Soviet army combat jacket and ammunition chest pouches. A loosely wrapped black turban sat over a wrinkled face bearing the proscribed fist size beard on his chin and eyes that seemed to have a perpetual glimmer of humor to them. He was rarely seen with a rifle in his hand instead it would be slung on his back. "A commander can't think or give orders if he is busy shooting," he had said. Instead he scrambled amongst the rocks with a walkie-talkie, calling each fighter by his name and directing the fight as it happened. His commanders and his occasional Pakistani ISI advisors knew that once he had his orders he needed no supervision or further direction. The fight was always solely his.
By the summer of 1998, Norowz commanded a force that fluctuated between three hundred and four hundred southern Afghans and which was involved in the fighting in the northern region around Mazar-e Sharif. The excesses he saw performed here, often but not always by foreigners, made him have his first doubts but did not shake his faith in the movement. He couldn’t fail but note that many of his troops were leaving the fighting season early to return home. While the Taliban were no strangers to conscription, the traditional Afghan tribal models were centered on a more voluntary and seasonal participation. What would elsewhere be considered desertion was tolerated amongst the Pashtuns as a norm alongside lengthy negotiations prior to and during battle, generous surrender terms, paroling prisoners, and changing sides when appropriate.
In December of that year he took the remainder of his unit back to Kandahar to recruit, refit and retrain. In fact they never went north again and were still in Kandahar in September of 2001. By then the unit averaged around 280 fighters made up of three core groups of 25 full-time fighters each and nine further teams made up of between 10 and 40 part-time fighters each. The unit reported to the regional Taliban commander for the Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan provinces. Their weapons were light, mostly old Russian ones: hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles and Rocket Propelled Grenades; two dozen PK 7.62 mm general purpose machine guns; three 82 mm mortars; and three 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks. Their vehicles too were old, mostly pickup trucks, a pair of buses, a pair of old Soviet Ural 6 x 6 trucks and several jingle trucks conscripted from locals as needed.
When news came of the martyrdom operations in New York, Norowz knew that it was only a matter of time before the Americans would come. Omar would never give up bin Laden and bin Laden would never allow himself to be given up. Over the days there was much rhetoric, some news but mostly rumors: the Americans are here—the Americans will never come—if they do come we will kill them all. All agreed that if foreigners came, most of the people would rise against them as they had against the godless Russians. Ominously the local ISI liaisons became noticeably absent. This did not bother Norowz too much—Pakistan had too much invested here and too many of their own people here to simply abandon them.
Days turned into weeks until in late October rumors started coming that the Americans were setting up bases to the north in Uzbekistan. Radio messages also started coming in playing music that had been banned by the Taliban and asking why the Taliban supported the murderers of innocents in New York. Air drops of food started to come with simple messages to the people to tune in their radios.
Late in November there came confirmation of disaster at Mazar-e Sharif. Thousands of mostly Pakistani Taliban had been captured by General Dostum who had been supported by considerable airpower. The Americans were here and were fighting with the Northerners. Norowz stepped up recruiting and training. He knew he probably wouldn’t be called to the North because of the three forces—the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda—the Afghanis were considered the least reliable because they functioned more as a local home guard. The jihad motivated Pakistanis and foreigners were deemed the core of the army.
As the winter came on, more and more Afghanis were coming home spreading news of defeat after defeat. Norowz would learn much later that in this short period, 10,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda were killed and thousands more captured. There had not been a massive invasion by the Americans. In fact less than 200 Americans had been on the ground supporting the Uzbek and Tajik dominated Northern Alliance while their air support had seemed to be without limit.
The Taliban were on the run. Even in the South and East anti-Taliban militia supported by Americans started to appear. Some of the militia was even made up of Pashtuns. Raids were happening in several places all presumably looking for Mullah Omar.
On the night of November 16th, Norowz received word that a small force under a new commander named Hamid Karzai was in Tarin Kowt, north of Kandahar and that he was to take the town back. Gathering together a force of 180 fighters and a dozen vehicles they set out in the company of several other units totaling over one hundred vehicles.
Shortly after dawn as they closed in on Tarin Kowt they were attacked by aircraft. The first bomb missed but not the next few. Surprisingly most of the force remained intact and the attacks stopped. No ground attack followed the air strikes so the column pressed on only to be hit by another attack a few hours up the road. Again there was no ground attack so they dispersed their forces sending several vehicles to take round about routes to the village. These soon fell back and reported that they had come under attack, not by the Karzai militia but what they took to be villagers from Tarin Kowt itself.
The continuing air strikes were taking their toll and in response the Taliban pulled their troops back to Kandahar, harassed by aircraft the better part of the way. In all over thirty vehicles and their crews had been destroyed.
On the 23rd came word that Taliban and al-Qaeda units were engaging a second Anti-Taliban militia force near Tahk-te-pol cutting off the highway to Pakistan. The militia was reducing to a dribble any al-Qaeda reinforcements moving up to Kandahar from Spin Boldak on the border. For the next week, Norowz’s unit, dug into wadis and canals at the Kandahar airport where they suffered continuous air bombardment and ever mounting casualties. Word had arrived that al-Qaeda reinforcements gathering at Spin Boldak had been engaged and beaten back with heavy casualties.
On December 5th the Taliban leadership surrendered Kandahar but no anti-Taliban forces entered the city for two days. Norowz and the al-Qaeda fighters decided they would make their escape. Norowz had only thirty full-time and seventy part-time fighters remaining. He allowed the part-timers to blend back into the population and took the remaining thirty with him as in ones and twos they, and many of the al-Qaeda troops, exfiltrated Kandahar to make their way to what would ultimately be their sanctuary in the lower Shah-i-Kot valley.


 

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PROLOGUE (Cont'd)

Norowz stood up and looked to his right where a steep snow-covered path led past massive rock outcrops to the crest of the mountain. The mountain top was shaped like a slanted tear drop almost four hundred meters long. At the southwest end was a small outcropping where his twenty-seven men were stationed looking into the lower valley to their west, endless rugged mountains and the upper valley to the east, and a gorge connecting the two to their south. At its northeast end the peak rose significantly—at least thirty meters higher than his position. Three rock outcroppings—the furthest north one almost on the peak and two lower ones about one hundred meters closer in—defined where the twenty-five Uzbek al-Qaeda fighters had their position looking west, north and east. A very narrow saddle connected the two positions. The slopes below facing into the valley held their command post, ammunition dumps and many dozen more fighters in a number of dug-in positions with mortars, machine guns and even artillery.
In the two months they had been here, Norowz’s group and the Uzbeks had each been up here on the crest three times. Ten days up, eight days back in the valley, two days of hard climbing the cliffs of loose scree and snow—two kilometers horizontally and six hundred meters vertically. Their last ascent was three days ago—just before the storm came in. He had felt sorry for those that they had replaced. He was sure they were only half way down when the blizzard started. He would not have wanted to have been trapped on the slope. Kandahar also had hills and hard terrain, but nothing that even remotely compared to what they had here in Paktia. Luckily there had been local workers who had done most of the digging to develop the positions and to carry the heavier weapons and ammunition up here. Even fresh cooked meals were brought up on a daily basis under contract by the local villagers of Zurmat.
Putting on his shoes and slinging his AK-47 he turned up the slope to make his morning visit to the leader of the Uzbeks. He made his way carefully, pushing through the waste high drifts of snow and picking his way across the saddle past the eastern rock outcropping to avoid the deepest snow to its west. He noted the mosque the Uzbeks maintained here. It was just a stone with the direction to face painted on it, but the snow had been brushed aside or trampled down by prayer mats. He picked his way amongst one of the several stands of pine trees that dotted the mountain crest as he made his way to the rock outcrop at the summit and the two bunkers dug in on its eastern face nodding to the three Uzbeks sitting there.
“Where is Mohmad?” he asked the one he recognized as the more senior.
In return he received a surely look and a nod in the direction of the Uzbeks’ field kitchen on the north side of their position. On that side of the position was a dug-in and sandbagged DShK heavy machine gun which from here could reach much of the northern face of the mountain and into the three villages in the valley below to the west. The field of fire was almost straight down which actually made accurate shooting harder than one would think.
Between the bunkers and the DShK was the small camp stove amongst some pine trees that defined the kitchen. In case one wasn’t sure, the decapitated carcasses of frozen chickens and goats that hung from the trees attested to the spot’s role. A nearby donkey remained quite alive secure in the fact that its role of packing supplies up and down the mountain would keep it that way.
The Uzbek commander wearing the typical al-Qaeda black battle dress and an untypical light blue quilted coat waved him over to the stove where he stood with three of his men.
A broad smile crossed his lips just barely visible within the full beard. “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allah,” he said to Norowz as he held out his ungloved hand.
Norowz took his hand firmly and with his own open smile replied, “Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatulah wa barakatuh. How are you this morning my brother?”
“How could one not be well, brother, when one is sitting on top of the world looking down at God’s beauty all around him?” he swung his arm to the even taller mountain range some four kilometers to the east where the sun was starting to make its appearance gently kissing the snow peaked mountain tops one by one.
The only Uzbeks Norowz knew were these ones with al-Qaeda. He hated them. They were arrogant and fanatical. Their arrogance was most obvious in their distain for Afghan customs of war. Withdrawing to fight another day or negotiating surrenders, paroles or a change of sides was sneered at: fighting to the death and killing prisoners, even Muslims, was their way. Worst of all they took advantage of the Pashtunwali code of Melmastia—hospitality and protection to strangers. The hospitality was frequently taken advantage of and drew many innocent Afghanis into situations they would have preferred to have avoided.
Despite his general feelings, he liked this Uzbek. Mohmad Khanov was about Norowz’s own age, almost a head taller than he was but at least ten kilos lighter. His dominant features were his sparkling grey eyes under thick brows that burned through lies and excuses from his lazier charges but also rewarded with a glance those who performed above expectations.
Coming from the Fergana Valley and an early member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Mohmad had been fighting several years now to bring Shari’a to his country. He had fought in southern Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990’s and in 2000 his unit had fought alongside al-Qaeda’s 55th Arab Brigade for the Taliban at Taloqan. After October 2001 most of his comrades had died and the unit shattered while fighting in northern Afghanistan. The survivors now considered themselves to be full fledged members of al-Qaeda and, having failed to join up with bin Laden at Tora Bora, they had made their way here.
Mohmad and Norowz had found in each other kindred spirits rooted in efficiency and devotion to their comrades. They both eschewed the bluster and religious fanaticism that was so common amongst their peers and superiors.
“Chai?” asked Mohmad.
“Thank you. Yes.” Norowz pulled an old tin cup out of his pocket and one of Mohmad’s men lifted the kettle and poured.
Mohmad suddenly raised his hand for silence and stared off to the northwest where the faint sound of an aircraft and cannon fire could be heard. Impact flashes on the ground were just barely visible in the dark beyond the northern entrance of the valley.
“Gunship,” said Norowz.
“Do we have anyone out that far?” asked Mohmad.
“Not that I know of,” replied Norowz. “Either way, the Americans are here, brother.”


 

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CHAPTER 1
HLZ13A, Shah-i-Kot, Paktia Province
Saturday 2 Mar 2002 0615 hrs AFT
Three CH-47 Chinook helicopters carried the first wave of Phil Sambrook’s battalion to the southern end of the valley that morning. Another three carried an equally small force from another battalion to land further to the north. The flight from Bagram airfield had taken just over an hour. The cold humid air had created clouds and fog but the choppers had been lucky and found a layer of clear air about forty feet high that they were able to follow all the way to the valley. Along the way they had been joined by two UH-60 Blackhawk command and control ships and five AH-64 Apache gun ships.
The six Chinooks, each carrying approximately forty keyed-up troopers, had passed west of the valley beyond its south entrance and then turned back and spread out to their respective helicopter landing zones. Phil sat up front on the jump seat just aft of the two pilots doing his best to see outside the aircraft with his night vision goggles. Dawn was breaking and there was less and less need for the NVGs. The three villages that linked up in the middle of the valley, as well as the fourth village further south closest to Phil’s HLZ, were quiet, too quiet for this time of day. Around the compounds there should have been fires, laundry on lines and the sign of children and women doing their normal morning’s activities. He could see none of that.
Behind him the aircrew manned their machine guns at the right front door, the left front hatch and on the ramp staring into the dim light either with their bare eyes or through their NVGs searching for targets. The open hatches blasted the freezing air down the length of the aircraft. Phil’s troops crowded into the aluminum and red canvas seats that lined the side of the craft huddled in their cold weather gear, equipment piled on every inch of the floor space between them. Notwithstanding the biting cold and what in a few seconds could turn into a landing on a hot HLZ inside a cigar tube, morale was high. For many of them this would be their first combat experience. The crew chief had given them the one minute warning. Everywhere the troops were getting ready to deplane: unbuckling their seat belts and laying their hands on their rucksacks. Weapons locked and loaded.
“I don’t like it boss. Where are the people down there?”
Phil turned to the voice of his Command Sergeant Major. “They’ve moved them out. I think its going to get hot down there CSM.” They had certainly been expecting civilians and in fact the whole operational plan was based on their presence. The troops were operating under very restricted rules of engagement and the plan was based on having several hundred Afghan anti-Taliban militia seize the villages especially for the purpose of having locals for separating the civilians from the insurgents. Phil’s battalion was simply there to form a blocking force.
“I sure as hell hope the Apaches and Spectres have their eyes open.”
“It’s almost dawn. The Spectres will pull off station pretty soon. FYI TF Hammer has been hit by heavy mortar fire. They’ve pulled back to regroup.” TF Hammer was the militia accompanied by American Special Forces personnel that were to assault the northern and southern ends of the valley shortly after the air assault.
The CSM grinned, “Excellent. All the more Talibs for our boys, Boss.”
Phil’s aircraft was feathering into a landing at HLZ13A: the twin rotors beat the thin, cold air hard. The ramp was down and the troops rose to their feet. Everyone knew their role—to exit the aircraft fast with all their gear in one burst and take up perimeter security. Speed. Get away from the bird fast and let it get out of here fast. Big birds drew fire like a magnet and to put it politely there was nothing on these things that would provide protection—bullets would fly through the thin alloy skin and insulation like butter—except ironically the self sealing fuel tanks which could stop lighter rounds.
Phil stayed in his seat. Being at the front he’d be the last off and would have enough time to grab his rucksack and M4 and make his way down the aircraft. Phil contemplated ruefully that staying up front to communicate with the pilot and the Task Force commander and to view the approaching ground in order to keep situational awareness somewhat got in the way of the Follow Me credo of the infantry officer.
Sambrook’s chopper carried 1 Platoon from the battalion’s C Company, the company commander and his own battalion tactical HQ, basically himself, his CSM, some radio operators and a USAF technical sergeant who was the battalion’s Enlisted Terminal Attack Controller—an ETAC. His alternate TAC was in another chopper with the battalion’s Executive Officer landing at HLZ 13 to the south.
Clearing the aircraft took less than a minute and fortunately was done without enemy interference. That good luck didn’t last. As the now empty Chinook started to rise off the ground, inaccurate small arms fire started coming down on them from the slopes of the large mountain directly to their east. The mountain peak was about two kilometers away to the northeast but the slope came down almost right to their position which was toward the bottom of the valley. Another peak rose to their southeast and a ridge, less than a kilometer away rose to their west.
Other small arms fire started erupting from that ridge where coincidentally the Task Force RAKKASAN’s TAC had landed. To the north could be heard the chatter of small arms fire where the 2nd of the 187th Infantry from the 101st Airborne Division had inserted in their three Chinooks. TF RAKKASAN commanded both the 2nd of the 187th and Phil’s 1st of the 87th as well as another battalion, the 1st of the 187th which remained in Bagram in reserve.
To Phil’s front, C Company’s 1 Platoon started to move out along the slope heading west towards the HEATHER blocking position that they were to occupy as their objective. Within seconds heavy machine gun fire and RPG fire started up. To his south, 2 Platoon, tasked to move northeast to occupy the GINGER position, was similarly receiving an ever increasing amount of small arms fire.
Phil made his way up to the company commander’s position and hunkered down beside him. The effort of moving less than fifty yards had exhausted Phil and left him gasping for air. Despite his fitness, the 8,500 foot altitude of the valley was quickly telling on him. Up here there was almost thirty percent less oxygen available than at their home base in New York. While they were part of the 10th Mountain Division, they primarily lived and trained at sea level and were mountain troops in name only. Bagram had twenty percent less oxygen than they were used to but this had only slightly prepared them for the starvation their bodies went through now. Add to that the heavy rucksacks they all carried and men reached exhaustion entirely too quickly.
“What’s the word Nelson?” he gasped.
“1 Platoon is pinned down by an HMG from up the slope and we’ve been taking RPGs in here. They’re not gonna make it up to HEATHER. I just got a call from 2 Platoon. They’re also pinned down short of GINGER and are looking for orders. The good news is from where they are they can give us covering fire so I’m gonna move 1 Platoon and myself into that depression over there and then push 1 Platoon on to HEATHER if we can. I’ll leave 2 Platoon where they are ‘cause they should be able to cover us and GINGER with fire from there.”
Phil let his company commander get on with it and turned to his CSM. “CHARLIE’s putting his CP into that depression and moving 1 Platoon through it onto HEATHER. Move our TAC in there as well. Any word from ALPHA?”
“Yeah. Their Chinook couldn’t get into the LZ so they landed down slope to the northwest, almost on the road. They ran into a dozen armed kids but a couple of grenade rounds put the boots to them. He sent the scouts and snipers off to do their OPs and should have the rest of his 1 Platoon on EVE any minute now.”
“That’s great,” said Phil. “The scouts and the snipers should be able to give us additional cover onto GINGER.” Things might not be according to plan but it looks like we’ve got a handle on it anyway.
Phil would soon regret that thought.
 

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CHAPTER 1 (Cont'd)

Lieutenant Colonel Phil Sambrook had put a lot of living into his thirty-four years—thirty-five at the end of the month—since his birth in Minneapolis Minnesota. The son of a Lieutenant with the Minneapolis Police Department and a high school teacher, he shared the family features of green eyes, an athletic build, light brown hair and an angular chiseled face with his younger sister Heather. However, while Phil was a muscular one hundred and eighty pounds on a six foot frame and perpetually sported a crew cut, the pixyish Heather barely stood five foot two and wore her hair in a pony tail. While Heather pursued a Master’s degree in Political Studies at Harvard and a career in the civil service in Washington, Phil had departed for West Point immediately after high school.
Phil’s branch of service choice was the infantry. Phil’s life companion of choice was his high school sweetheart Diana Jorgensen.  She had stayed in Minneapolis attending the University of Minnesota while Phil was at the Point. On graduation they married and Phil took his new bride with him to Fort Drum in upper New York State where he joined the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry as a platoon leader. Subsequent to completing jump training and the Ranger course, he became the Scout Platoon leader.
The summer of 1990 had Phil and Diana and their now one year old son Brian assigned to the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry at Fort Bragg. Deployment to the Gulf resulted in a Silver Star. In his absence Diana produced her own award, a daughter Tracy. On Phil’s return and promotion to captain, he was employed as a company commander, the battalion G2 and as aide to the Commanding General of XVIII Airborne Corps. His buddies joked that he couldn’t keep a job for long.
Phil was being noticed, however, and was being mentored into the growth industry that was special operations. A four year posting to the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he was promoted major, was followed by a two year tour back at Bragg, this time with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta. When his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel came through, Phil had hoped for a posting back to a SF group. Instead, others who had been watching him felt that his potential for a general’s star would be heightened if he had more experience with a line unit. Hence Phil and Diana packed their bags to return to the 10th Mountain at Drum where Phil took command of the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry.
Then came September 11th.
In the immediate aftermath military planners looked for options for Afghanistan. Lessons learned from the Soviets occupation there were analyzed and with time it was decided to keep the American presence on the ground to a minimum and instead to use a handful of CIA Special Activities Division and US Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha teams to help train and support indigenous northern Afghan forces in their fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Support bases were negotiated and set up in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In the early stages most of the involved military forces were SF and USAF. Phil’s battalion deployed to the K2 airfield in Uzbekistan in dribs and drabs as air lift was made available. They provided local airfield security as well as the Quick Reaction Force for Joint Special Operations Task Force – North’s Combat Search and Rescue operations. At the time that it deployed, the battalion was the largest single ground combat force America had in theater.
As the winter progressed, the anti-Taliban militia forces with US ODA and air support had the Taliban on the run and America’s attention turned to stability operations. The 10th Mountain Division had deployed a very sparse headquarters to the K2 airfield and in fact by January was contemplating returning forces back to the US. Around this time, however, intelligence was starting to develop a picture of increasing enemy activity in the eastern province of Paktia, near the Pakistani border.
The operation which would eventually be put together to clean out the lower Shah-i-Kot Valley had originally been assigned to JSOTF-N to be a, by now, typical joint Afghan militia and ODA mission. By early February, JSOTF-N considered it beyond their capabilities even if one counted in the forces available from the newly created Combined JSOTF-S in Kandahar. CJSOTF-S—also known as TF K-Bar—had both SEALs and SF personnel, hence the term combined, and a number of special operators from Australia, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway.
The job was thus given to the folks at 10th Mountain Division which commanded the conventional forces in Afghanistan and operated under the title CJTF Mountain. The small size and ad hoc nature of the overall command and control structure would soon show in the inadequacy of the intelligence that was generated and the resultant planning.
CJTF Mountain had two brigade headquarters under its command: HQ 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division called TF Rakkasan at Kandahar was allocated three infantry battalions, the 1-187th; 2-187th; and 1-87th; HQ 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division called TF Commando was allocated the 4-31st as its sole infantry battalion. In addition CJTF Mountain assumed control over a fifth infantry battalion, the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry which had originally been with the Rakkasans at Kandahar but would eventually be flown north and assigned to work with TF Commando.
For a complex plan, CJTF Mountain’s Operation ANACONDA had a relatively simple concept.
Intelligence as to the enemy was the weakness. It was assumed there were some 200 Taliban and al-Qaeda in the valley and if attacked they would follow the standard pattern: set out a rear guard and run for the mountains—in this case the few dozen miles east to Pakistan. No one wanted another Tora Bora so it was critical that escape routes should be cut off.
D Day was the date set for the operation. Three days prior to D Day special operations forces teams would be inserted around the valley: Australian Special Air Service Regiment operators from TF 64 would screen south of the valley. German, Canadian, Norwegian, Danish and British ones from TF K-Bar the north and east. Deltas and SEALs from TF 11’s Advance Force Operations special reconnaissance detachments would also be deployed. Intelligence on the enemy would finally become clear. On D Day two ground forces of around one thousand Afghans and their ODAs, TF Anvil would create blocking positions on the east side of the mountain range where TF Rakkasan would deploy. Collectively, TF 64, TF K-Bar, and the Afghans would form an outer cordon between the insurgents and the way to Pakistan.
On the day of the assault TF Rakkasan nominally with two battalions but in reality because of the limited airlift, with not much more strength than two rifle companies would set up blocking positions east of the villages on all the escape routes heading towards Pakistan. Further troops would come on a second lift later that day. They would be an inner cordon.
Concurrent with the heliborne assault, a ground force of about six hundred Afghan militia supported by ODAs nicknamed TF Hammer would attack the villages from the north and south end of the valley and drive the enemy into the blocking positions.
In the absence of American artillery in Afghanistan, air support would provide the operations fire support. The tools to call in air support in the valley, it’s surrounding mountains and the terrain beyond that—primarily by way of USAF ETACs—would accompany all conventional and special ops forces.
The first thing that had unraveled was the timings. Two days of near blizzard conditions prevented the insertion of the special operations forces screens and OPs. D Day was moved to March 2nd. With the reset timings, many of the special operations forces barely made it into their positions before the heliborne assault.
Next as TF Hammer approached the northern end of the valley they were hit by what they presumed was enemy mortar fire but was in fact misdirected friendly fire from a supporting Spectre gun ship. Amongst their casualties was their ODA team leader who was killed. The TF pulled back to regroup. Once regrouped their advance resumed but a preparatory and massive one hour air strike they had expected had been reduced to a few paltry bombs. The one thing the Afghan militia had come to appreciate about the Americans was their air power. Its absence was demoralizing. To make matters worse the force came under intense and accurate al-Qaeda mortar fire resulting in dozens of casualties and consequentially another withdrawal ensued.


“Sir, I have to bring 1 Platoon back here,” said the C Company commander. Not a question. A decision.
1 Platoon had moved up to blocking position HEATHER and almost immediately started taking fire from the west from a ridge with a force of between fifty to one hundred al-Qaeda, judging by their black battle dress. 1 Platoon had returned fire immediately and effectively until they themselves started receiving highly effective mortar fire from the east. Within a space of a half hour, the platoon had taken ten wounded including the platoon leader and sergeant.
“They’re going to need some help getting back here,” said Phil. Here was the shallow depression that his TAC and the company commander occupied. He’d called it the Bowl but had heard some of the rankers already nicknaming it as the Devil’s Half Pipe.
“I’ll leave one of 2 Platoon’s squads and the 120 mm mortars at HLZ13 and have the rest come here. From here they can help 1 Platoon withdraw.”
Phil nodded his concurrence. He was trying hard to let the company commander run his own fight. Considering that his battalion on the ground barely constituted a rifle company, it was all too easy to start to micromanage every little detail. On the other hand keeping his hands off meant he had very little to do other than to try to gather in air support which the ETAC was already quite proficient at. More and more he felt like a spectator.
The morning wore on slowly. When 1 Platoon and 2 Platoon were securely in the Bowl they settled down for an hour of trading fire with the ever mounting number of al-Qaeda to their northwest.
At mid-morning, however, the tempo increased sharply. Heavy machine gun fire and large amounts of small arms fire started coming into the position from the north. It came primarily from the village of Marzak, the southernmost of the triangle of four villages spread over four square kilometers at the heart of the valley.
Phil made his way around the ridge of the Bowl from west to east and by his estimate there were around seventy individuals firing and moving slowly along the ridge and to the west, another eighty or so advancing more rapidly using the cover of the ravines and rock outcroppings leading up from the village to the north and another seventy at least firing from various positions to the east along the slopes of the mountain Takur Ghar. Of the three areas, the enemy in the north appeared to be taking the most aggressive action. C Company’s fire was effectively wearing down the assault but it was the intervention of bombing runs by fast movers brought in by the ETAC that eventually broke up the advance.
The primary threat had now turned to the east.
“Sir. I’ve got some air I can put on the hill. It’s a B-52,” yelled the ETAC.
“You got a good fix on our scouts and the snipers?” asked Phil.
“Yes sir. I put the enemy about 500 meters east of here, If I run him in from south to north parallel to CHARLIE Company about 700 meters out from us then both CHARLIE and ALPHA and the scouts will be good.”
“Do it and give me a one minute warning. CSM! Pass the word to all call signs that we’ve got a B-52 bomb strike coming in and that we’ll give them one minute warning to get their heads down.”
“You got it, Sir.”
The ETAC called out the warning as promised and throughout the Bowl everyone pulled off the crest and tucked themselves into whatever tiny hollows they could find while the violence of the twenty-four five hundred pound bombs rippled their way along the slopes of the mountain.
“That felt good boss,” said the CSM.
“Nothin’ like throwin’ five hundred pound bricks of steel and explosives at the bad guys,” said Phil. “And they pay us to do this too. Someday some shitheads in Washington will come up with the idea that we should be paying them for the privilege.”
The fire from the east, however, continued unabated until several gun and rocket runs by AH-64 Apaches eventually quieted things down. The Apaches came up from the south through the draw at HEATHER and then continued their runs up the valley to fire at the mountain slopes along the way. They couldn’t hover to engage but had to constantly keep moving in the face of small arms and RPGs volleys.
After the last run, the CSM sat down beside Phil. “Those guys are taking a lot of ground fire as they come through HEATHER,” he said. “The ETAC says that five of their six Apaches have had to go back to Bagram, too shot up to keep fighting. We’ve also had a couple of 82mm mortars getting direct hits on our position at HLZ13. We got a couple of wounded in our mortar det.”
“Okay,” said Phil and turned to the CHARLIE Company commander. “I want you to concentrate your whole company here as soon as you can.”
“Yes sir,” he said and called over his First Sergeant to help organize the job. That done, he came back to Phil.
“I think they lied to us, Sir.”
Phil knew there was a joke coming up but had to ask anyway, “I presume you’re talking about our all knowing superiors, Captain. How did they miscommunicate the situation this time?”
“Well Sir, if there’s only supposed to be two hundred al-Qaeda in the valley and I’ve seen almost three hundred right around my company position and if I can hear all kinds of shooting going on at other positions to the northeast then I can only conclude that we’ve been miscommunicated to and there’s a whole crap load more bad guys here than we were told about.”
Phil had to smile.
“Seriously though, Sir, how are things up north?
“Alpha’s good and the 1st of the 187th all landed clean. Like us they started taking fire from all over the place within a few minutes of touchdown. Despite that all three of their platoons are moving up to their respective blocking positions. There’s a lots of bad guys up there though.”
“So far, so good. I’ll be getting back to getting my boys together.”
The CSM pulled two energy bars out of the sustainment pouch on his MOLLE and handed one to Phil without asking. Phil took it.
“Those mortars got me worried, boss. They’re not fast but they know their job. You can see them doing ranging either walking the rounds in or bracketing. They’re gonna get some accurate fire down on us here eventually. The air isn’t harming them. My guess is that they’ve got caves or bunkers up there and as soon as they hear a fast mover or a helicopter they get deep into a hole up there. Once the air is gone they’re free to come out and get us. All we had to shoot back with was a single 120mm and it’s down and I don’t know if we’ll get it back into action.”
“Yeah. We weren’t expecting this many of their troops up here or this kind of firepower. The intel was for fewer guys all supposedly in the villages. For that matter, these guys don’t look like they’re trying to fight their way out of here either. They’re just fighting. A few extra tubes or some artillery with counter-mortar radar would’ve been nice.”
“They wouldn’t be able to hide from arty. You ever hear arty comin’ in. It’s a God awful noise. Gives you maybe a second’s warning at best. Barely gives you time to crap your pants much less scamper into a cave.”
Phil finished his energy bar. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any so let’s see what we can do to harden our position a bit more CSM.”
“You got it, Sir. For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.”
That made Phil pause for a moment. Phil had been raised in a religious household and he and Diana continued to raise a religious family. Diana in particular ensured that they not only attended church each Sunday but participated fully in their church community’s extended activities. It was something they did not just for the children’s sake but because they did have faith. Phil was surprised that this moment was the first time today that he had given it any thought. It left him somewhat uncomfortable.
The rate of fire from CHARLIE Company started to pick up as it laid down a heavy suppressive fire to cover 2 Platoon’s squad and the mortar crew as they dragged their wounded and equipment to the Bowl. Phil moved onto the ridge to add his own fire to the effort.
They hadn’t even been on the ground for four hours yet. Last light wouldn’t be for another eight hours at least.
Phil set the selector on three-round burst looked up to scan for a target and sighted on a furtive figure some three hundred meters away. He breathed out, held his breath and squeezed.
 

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CHAPTER 2

Bagram Airfield, Parwan Province, Afghanistan
Saturday 2 Mar 2002 1305 hrs AFT

The young Captain sitting at a folding table in the modular tent that constituted the dining facilities in this part of Bagram Airfield held his coffee cup in two hands and gently swished the contents around as he stared vacantly down at his now empty plate.
“Sind sie fertig, Dieter?”
Captain Dieter Schäfer sat up straight with a start and turned to face the person who had walked up to the table unnoticed by him.
“Yes Sir, I am finished but sit down anyway. I’m not leaving yet. I’m not due back until fourteen hundred.”
Major Kurt Richter took a seat, set down his tray and started to unload his plate, coffee cup and cutlery onto the table before sliding the tray down on the floor beside his chair. He could speak German just as fluently as the young Captain from the Kommando Spezialkräfte—the German Army’s Special Forces Command—but he understood that the young man would prefer to speak English whenever he could to improve his skills in that language.
Dieter Schäfer, twenty-five years old, six foot even and weighing in around one hundred and sixty pounds radiated Teutonic efficiency. Sporting stereotypical blue eyes and blond hair, the young officer rarely spoke unless spoken to and then answered in well reasoned, if curt opinions. A graduate of the Bundeswehr’s Helmut Schmidt University in his home town of Hamburg and basic army and infantry officer training, Schäfer had joined the 10. Panzerdivision’s Panzergrenadierbatallion 122 at the Grenzland-Kaserne in Oberviechtach Bavaria as a Zugführer just in time to join the battalion’s last foray to the German Army’s Training Establishment Shilo, in Manitoba, Canada. While still a Leutnant he saw that a career with the mechanized infantry would be somewhat stifling and started looking into a transfer to the Bundeswehr’s recently formed Kommando Spezialkräfte. In order to qualify for selection he volunteered for and was accepted to the Bundeswehr’s Einzelkämpferlehrgang. At the completion of this commando course he returned to the battalion in time for his promotion to Oberleutnant and, shortly thereafter, command of one of the battalion’s Marder companies.
His tour as company commander lasted a brief six months, most of which he spent undergoing the KSK’s evaluation and selection program. The urgency with which the unit was being built resulted in an almost immediate posting for Schäfer to the Kommando’s Graf-Zeppelin Kaserne located just east of Calw nestled in the middle of the state of Baden-Württemberg in the northern portion of the Black Forest, a region well known to both American and NATO soldiers.
Schäfer had married just before his posting to the KSK. The marriage had ended before he had completed the two years of training leading to his combat-ready status and command of the Fallschirmspezialzug of 1. Kommandokompanie. There were no children.
Schäfer’s promotion to Hauptman had come through just before 9/11 but his low seniority within the KSK kept him as the Zugführer of four Kommandotrupps each of four HALO parachute qualified soldiers one each specializing in weapons, explosives, communications or medic. In total the company had six Zügen for a total establishment of sixty-four deployable commandos and another thirty-five or so leaders and support personnel.
When the company deployed to Afghanistan last December, Schäfer’s Zug was not amongst the forty special operators chosen to go. These came from the troops more oriented to long distance reconnaissance, mountain warfare, and complex terrain specialties. Added to this contingent were eighty some odd support troops including elite long range reconnaissance and surveillance troopers from Fernspählehrkompanie 200. Schäfer was tasked to accompany the contingent as the aide to the Oberst Leutnant from the KSK who would be the contingent’s liaison officer to CJSOTF-S. In this role, he had been involved in all the contingent’s planning processes both at their base near Kandahar and now at Bagram for Operation ANACONDA.
“Did anything more happen since I left the TAC?” asked Schäfer who had left for lunch at noon
“9-ALPHA is totally screwed now,” replied Kurt.
Schäfer shook his head in frustration. The KSK’s primary contribution to Operation ANANCONDA was the provision of three patrols, call signs 9-ALPHA, 9-BRAVO and 9-DELTA. All three had been inserted in the region of the 3,934 meter high Talab Khel overlooking blocking position JEEP some twenty kilometers southeast of the primary objectives. The establishment of the blocking position was the responsibility of Afghan units with ODA support but the KSK teams would provide long range observation and provide control for air sorties against any evading al-Qaeda.
The three patrols, together with thirteen from other nations, had been inserted by US helicopters during the night of March 1st and 2nd. For 9-ALPHA the problem became clear almost immediately. The cliffs were steeper and the snow deeper than were predicted by the American mission planners. The path that the patrol had planned to take from their HLZ to their observation post was simply inaccessible. By first light the patrol was still not in location and, worst of all, in the deep snow they had left a trail even a blind man could follow. In fact it wasn’t a blind man but six children that followed the obvious trail up to their position.
“What now?” Schäfer asked.
“9-Alpha has just had a lovely chat with four Afghans wandering the mountain gathering wood.” Kurt’s expression was deadpan. He knew how hard the young German would take this but couldn’t help but put a little levity into his report. In effect Kurt had reached his when shit happens don’t fight it, get on with it point.
“Does the Oberst know?” he asked referring to the German LO.
“Oh yes. He does,” said Kurt. “There’s a lot of yelling going on over there right now.”
“The Americans probably can’t understand why we didn’t just shoot six kids and the wood cutters and get on with the job,” Dieter replied dryly.
“I don’t doubt that there are some hotheads saying that but they know as well as we do that that’s not the way it goes,” responded Kurt. “Its one thing to hold and secure civilians who discover your position until the mission is over. Killing them is out. They know that Dieter. Their manuals set that out just like ours do. They’re just venting steam because they know things are screwed up and they’re all trying to figure out how to complete the mission successfully without taking casualties.”
“I don’t know if it’s just hotheads. They think different from us Kurt.”
Richter had built a strong rapport with the German contingent since they had arrived here and as a result had found them candid in discussing their frustrations with the campaign. They felt that the Americans treated them arrogantly while the Brits were obstinate and the French were aloof. All in all the Germans felt like they were being treated as third string players on a team where they felt they rated first string status.
The rapport that existed had grown from the fact that while Canadian, Kurt had been born in Germany and when he spoke with the contingent’s members he was able to do so in unaccented German and with shared experiences.
 

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CHAPTER 2 (Cont'd)

Like Schäfer, Kurt’s appearance displayed the characteristics that had marked those of his ancestors who had annihilated Varus and his three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest: six foot two with a muscular one seventy pound frame, frosty blue eyes and almost white blond hair and mustache. His athletic build had come from much exercise including running at least fifteen kilometers a day and weight lifting: habits he’d formed long before his posting to Joint Task Force 2 in 1998.
Born in Richterich, right next to the Dutch border, just north of Aachen in west-central Germany, Kurt had been born into a family owning a regional brewery. By the mid-seventies, Kurt’s father and uncle had agreed that the expansion of the brewery to a national brand within Germany was progressing satisfactorily and that they should pursue an opportunity for growing the business even more. They turned their attention to North America, a market which at the time was dominated by a few big producers and where, in their opinion, one beer tasted pretty much the same as any other. They studied the pros and cons of starting up in either the States or Canada and eventually settled on the city of Kingston in eastern Ontario as their initial home base. Accordingly, in 1977 Kurt’s side of the family immigrated and set up a small brewery providing at first, traditional German Pilsner draught beer to local pubs throughout the region.
While working to develop their Canadian market first, the Richters kept their eyes on the US and when it was time for high school it was decided Kurt should study at a private school there to develop a familiarity with the country. Brewers they might be, but the Richters had always had a sense of military service to country and eventually it was decided that Kurt would be enrolled at the nearby New York Military Academy at Cornwell on Hudson just a few miles up river from West Point. Upon graduation, Kurt was accepted into a business administration program at the University of Toronto. Concurrently he enrolled as a rifleman in a reserve unit, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. Within his first year he completed his basic military qualification and specialty qualification training as an infantryman as well as his basic parachutist course.
This is where the Richter family’s basic business plan took a setback as young Kurt decided that he would prefer to follow a future with the military. His request to transfer to a Regular Force officer’s training program was quickly accepted and over the next year he completed his basic officer and infantry officer training at St. Jean, Quebec and Gagetown, New Brunswick. 1987 saw him as a second lieutenant platoon commander with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The next three years passed quickly with a promotion to lieutenant, command of the battalion’s recce platoon, employment as the battalion’s intelligence officer and marriage to Toni Benning, the sister of one of his brother subalterns, and a recent graduate from the University of British Columbia’s Psychology program.
The summer of 1990 witnessed the birth of their daughter Tara; and a posting to National Defence Headquarters with the Directorate of Intelligence. The next three years included a promotion to the rank of Captain and a six month tour as the aide de camp to the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff. Deployments included staff visits to the First Gulf War in Kuwait, Somalia and Rwanda. Events in Kuwait brought him to his first casual contact with Phil Sambrook. While in Somalia they found themselves working together again which this time kindled into a friendship that carried over to their civilian lives.
Kurt’s family kept a summer cottage—a very comfortable two-story, 6 bed, 5½ bath cottage—located on Horse Thief Bay, a small inlet within sight of where U.S. Interstate 81 and Ontario Provincial Highway 137 join at the Thousand Islands Bridge on the St. Lawrence River. Phil’s family had property on the Gulf of Mexico at Redington Beach, Florida on the barrier islands just west of Tampa. In summer the Sambrooks would head up north for a week or two of fishing and watching freighters navigate the seaway while in the winter, the Richters would head south for a week or two on the seashore.
In 1993 Kurt was accepted to be a member of Joint Task Force 2. He and Toni retained their home in Ottawa while he commuted to Dwyer Hill while undertaking the lengthy training leading to trained operator status and command of a troop. Toni started to practice psychology while completing first a Master’s and then a PhD program. Operational Deployments were not numerous, but there were a few, during one of which Kurt was awarded a Star of Courage. For every win there is a loss. For Kurt the loss was Toni. As their career goals and more particularly their circle of acquaintances started to diverge, Toni no longer was prepared to put up with the bullshit that she saw in the military and the uncertainty and secrecy that accompanied his present job. In 1996 they separated and a year later the divorce was finalized on the same day that he was promoted major. For every loss there is a win, he thought wryly. Kurt went on a one year exchange to Fort Carson in Colorado with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) while Toni moved to Kingston to pursue her future at Queen’s University taking their daughter Tara with her. Kurt bore Toni no ill will. Nor she him. They continued to have a friendship and had frequent contacts which were more than a mere show for the good of the child. Leaving the military family made Toni happy again and Kurt was truly happy for her.
By this point the Special Forces community within the Canadian Forces was starting to gain some influence and could start looking after their own. Kurt was seen as a rising star and a potential commander of JTF-2. It was time to start his development for higher rank and, in order to foster more ties and better exposure to the US special operations forces community, he was given first an exchange posting to 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum and then sent to attend the US Army Command and General Staff Course at Fort Leavenworth. He had returned to JTF-2 as its Operations Officer eight months before 9/11. Arrangements were already in place for a further exchange posting starting at the end of the summer with the British Special Air Service.


“The AFO people were right weren’t they?” Schäfer swirled the coffee in his mug.
“Yes, I’d say they were pretty much right on,” agreed Kurt.
Original estimates for enemy forces in the valley had put the numbers from anywhere from a few dozen to a thousand but as the planning progressed the numbers narrowed dramatically to merely 150 to 200 fighters with around 1,400 civilian villagers all located in the valley. TF 11 ran black special operations searching for High Value Targets. Their headquarters was located on Masirah Island off the coast of Oman. To run operations within Afghanistan they had deployed an Advance Force Operations element under a Delta Lieutenant Colonel with several Delta and Seal teams. Two of AFO’s Delta teams and one SEAL team had infiltrated into positions overlooking the valley as early as February 27th. They had reported that there were significantly more al-Qaeda troops in the locale and, just as significantly, that many were in positions on the slopes and not in the valley. CJTF Mountain planners considered these reports but dismissed them and stayed with the original plan.
Richter had been privy to some of these discussions within the special ops community and had come away with the distinct impression that the overall plan had become too complex for the CJTF Mountain staff.  They simply didn’t have the ability to change the plan to cater for intelligence that they did not consider proven. He’d discussed the matter with Phil a few days before and expressed his discomfort with the convoluted planning and command lines. The special operations forces component in itself had numerous moving parts many of which did not normally operate together: elements from TF K-Bar which included US Navy SEALs, Canada’s JTF-2, Germany’s KSK, Norway’s Jegerkommando and Marinejegerkommandoen , New Zealand’s SAS, and Denmark’s Jægerkorpset and Frømandskorset in the north; TF 64, the Australian Special Air Service Regiment’s Task Group in the south; TF 11’s AFO sprinkled close to the objective; and various ODAs from TF Dagger accompanying local Afghan anti-Taliban militias. All worked under a relatively loose tactical control.
When he had expressed his concerns to Phil, Phil had trumped him. Not only were the two battalions going in as the air assault without organic fire support, relying solely on air support in very rugged high altitude mountainous terrain, but each battalion was bringing in just around one hundred and twenty men on the first lift. A second lift of less than one company each was scheduled for three and one half hours later, in what would now be daylight in a valley surrounded by very high ground and, in all probability now, a very alert enemy. All told, assuming the plan succeeded, the two battalions would have at best about four hundred troops in the blocking positions.
Neither Kurt nor Phil had expected the second wave would come in unscathed and Phil fully expected that if there was resistance, then he would not see his second company come until after last light the first day. He accordingly figured that if there was a fight, he would be fighting with merely one company for the first day. The other battalion was almost five kilometers away and so the two groups would not be able to provide mutual support one to the other. If the enemy ran away, that wouldn’t be a problem but as Kurt sarcastically pointed out “I don’t plan on an enemy runaway option when I calculate how much ammo to take with me.” “The hell with it,” Phil had said. “I’m not putting all my eggs in the air basket. I’m taking one of my 120mm mortars with me and as much ammo as we can fly and hump.”
“Do your boys have any 50 cal sniper rifles?” Kurt had asked.
“No. Do you have some to loan out?”
“Even better,” said Kurt. “I can give you some snipers. How about two three-man teams?”
“If you can make it two two-man teams it would be better. I’ll have to cut back my own scouts to make room for them and that won’t be good for their morale. If you make it two-man teams I can add a scout to each one of them.”
“Done,” Kurt had agreed. “Have your CSM expect a Sergeant Shirazi to come over to see him in an hour to work out the details. Incidentally, Shirazi is of Iranian ancestry and speaks fluent Arabic and Pashto.”


Richter turned his attention back to Schäfer. “The 1st of the 87th is pretty much pinned down right now. What with the weather and the enemy fire, they’ve called off the second lift. They also keep delaying the medevacs and my guess is they won’t go in until after last light. That’s when I expect they’ll pull out your 9-ALPHA as well.”
"Genau so," said Schäfer with a deep sigh. "I guess I should go back. I hope the yelling is all done for the day.”
 

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CHAPTER 3

Hill 3089, Lower Shah-i-Kot Valley
Saturday 2 Mar 2002 1520 hrs AFT

Mitch pulled his head down for a moment to seek some respite from the frigid wind. For the umpteenth time he had to wipe the tears out of his eyes so that he could see through the high power binoculars. When the icy wind didn’t tear him up, Mitch had a good view. His right of arc included the heights of Takur Ghar rising some one hundred meters higher than his own position and two kilometers due northeast. From there he could see all the way counterclockwise to the peaks of Khosa Chinah some two hundred thirty meters lower and two and one half kilometers due west—their left of arc. In between was a stunning view covering the four villages at the heart of the lower Shah-i-Kot valley and the Tir Ghol Ghar ridge beyond which the Yanks had nicknamed the Whale. All morning he had been following the fight of the eighty or so Yanks who had landed a little over a kilometer away at the base of the mountain whose peak he was dug into.
Lance Corporal Mitch Lane was the second in command of call sign Redback ALPHA-2, one of the patrols belonging to the Australian Special Air Service Regiment which together with the other members of the Australian Special Operations Task Group operated with the Americans as TF 64, the southern screening force of Operation ANACONDA. Like Lane’s patrol, other patrols had infiltrated the area so that they were able to observe the three major escape routes heading south, southeast and south west. Each patrol, basically five troopers and a signaler from 152 Signals Squadron, was a self sufficient unit usually operating with two specially modified Range Rover Perenties but also quite capable of airmobile operations and extremely long dismounted insertions.
SASR troopers were lean and tough and capable of extreme feats of endurance. Infiltrating these mountains had been challenging even for them: the terrain was extremely rugged; the packs and gear weighed upward of eighty pounds; the weather was bone numbingly cold; the altitude sapped one’s oxygen starved muscles; and enemy activity was high. All of the major valley approaches were occupied or under observation and the mountain tracks were treacherous, frequently snow covered, crumbling scree. The only option was to move at night and lay up during the day in well camouflaged out of the way positions. Complicating this patrol was the inclusion of a US Air Force ETAC together with his PRC-117 Manpack and a laser designator. Fortunately, this Yank had been in-country for a while with the ODAs and was less of a burden than originally anticipated. Like them, he wore the three-shades of coffee stain colored US battle dress pants, winter weight civilian ski jacket, an Afghan wool Pakol on his head, a Shemagh around the neck and face and had grown a beard. Not so fortunate for the ETAC was, because he was air force and not army, the Aussie troopers immediately dubbed him with the nickname of the airy-fairy.
Lane wasn’t used to the mountains. He’d certainly encountered them during his training but his entire life had been spent primarily at sea level. Born in Frankston, a suburb of Melbourne, he’d lived a carefree life as a teenager in a group whose mantra was surfin’, sheilas ‘n’ stubbies. Not until he graduated from high school, barely scrapping through because of his many absences, did the lanky six footer start to contemplate what he was going to do with his life. He spent the better part of the next year slumming, drinking with his mates and taking menial jobs—his favorite, though of short duration, had been as a waiter at the Pancake Parlour.
It was the drinking though that brought him to his present career. Over a stubbie—or three or four—of Victoria Bitter, his mate Charlie advised him that he was going to be signing up to become a digger.
“That’s rubbish, mate,” Mitch had replied. “What are you going to do in the army?”
“Grunt,” Charlie replied saying it all.
More beers didn’t help Mitch to change Charlie’s mind and in fact, the more time they argued, and drank, the more Mitch said to himself Why not? What have I got now?
Sobering up didn’t change things. The army was an option and when he mentioned it to his parents they were, at least to his mind, surprisingly supportive.
Two short months later Mitch and Charlie were enduring the discomforts of the Army Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka, New South Wales. To his surprise he had found his niche: while he tolerated drill, he excelled on the ranges with the plastic fantastic—the F88 Austyer assault rifle, the assault course, map using and navigation and fieldcraft. Unfortunately Charlie didn’t and despite a massive effort by Mitch and a few other recruits, Charlie was one of a few that washed out in week three. By then Mitch had already made new friends who were equally competent. Within the recruits’ ranks one quickly was subdivided into those who barely skated by, those who were solid mudders and those who everyone went to when they needed help. Mitch, who had always skated by, now fell solidly into the third category.
Kapooka was followed by the School of Infantry at Singleton NSW which Mitch liked even more than recruit training. Infantry training expanded his weapons repertoire to include the F88 Minimi light machine gun, the MAG58 general purpose machine gun, the M3 Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless support weapon, the Javelin shoulder fired anti-armor system and a small selection of grenades and other explosive goodies. Fieldcraft became section and platoon tactics. Not merely being in the top of the class, Mitch was the course’s honor graduate which he found meant absolutely squat when, six months after joining up and now wearing a brand new Skippie badge on his slouch hat, he arrived at his first posting, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment at Townsville, Queensland.
Mitch enjoyed regimental life but soon found the reality of being in a battalion was not quite as demanding as being on course. Exercises were few and far between the hum drum of garrison life. He soon sought out something more challenging and set his eyes on becoming a super-grunt. Nearly two years later he had passed the SASR selection course and by the middle of 1999 he got off the bus at Campbell Barracks at Swanbourne just outside Perth to begin his SASR training. He again he topped his course. This time people did notice and care and within a few months of joining A Troop of 1 Squadron he was appointed a lance corporal. Lance jacks, the wags said, had all of the responsibility of a corporal with none of the pay.
 

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CHAPTER 3 (Cont'd)

Not long after 9/11, the SASR was put on notice to deploy. By November, Australia’s Special Operations Task Group built around the SASR’s 1 Squadron deployed to Afghanistan.
For several months the squadron had been working out of Kandahar providing special reconnaissance and assault teams against pockets of Taliban and al-Qaeda. Then they got the call to move northeast for Operation ANACONDA.
REDBACK ALPHA-2 was not the first occupant of Hill 3089. It had previously been occupied by a picquet of al-Qaeda. The nine members of that picquet had only two guards up and they had been huddled low within two separate trenches. While outnumbering the SASR troopers, the lack of night vision gear and the element of surprise made them no match for the knives and suppressor equipped M4 carbines. Most never even awoke to find they were under attack. None got a shot off. It had taken an hour to reconnoiter and take out the picquet and immediately after that Mitch, the Chook from 152 Sigs and the ETAC set up operations while the patrol commander with the remaining three troopers reconnoitered another peak seven hundred meters to the southeast, Hill 3062, to determine if it was occupied. Ninety minutes later they were back to report the peak was clear and that they owned the mountain.
There was some concern in that another SASR patrol which was to have been inserted by a Mi-8 helicopter on the ridge to the northwest called Khosa Chinah had instead been landed elsewhere. To this point they had not made their way to their position. This reduced the coverage on the valley below and the approaches up the slopes of Takur Ghar and Hill 3089.
They took what little of the night left to improve the defenses of the position. Their weapons now included a number of AK-47s and two PK machine guns with thousands of rounds of ammunition and three dozen RPGs. The hope was that when the Yanks came in, the Talibs would be too focused on what was going on in the valley to try to track down why their picquet wasn’t answering their radio. The Chook had been given the walkie-talkie that they had found and any time that there was a call on it would hold down the pressel switch and rub the mouthpiece against his jacket to make it sound like a malfunctioning radio. If push came to shove, they would fight but out of an abundance of caution identified two viable HLZs for emergency extraction.
The morning brought what could only be called a debacle. The yank choppers landed unopposed but small arms fire from all around the valley started to pick up almost immediately as they lifted off. The fire soon increased with RPGs, machine guns and mortars chiming in. It was getting obvious that TF Summit, the call sign for the 1st of the 87th, was taking a shit-kicking and able to do little more than protect their perimeter. The ETAC, together with several others spread in and around the valley, had been busy directing the few available strike aircraft at the multitude of targets. Admittedly, the air support was weak and as soon as aircraft came on station the enemy would take to their caves and shelters. The Apaches had more success but that was probably because the Talibs and al-Qaeda stayed out more to shoot back at them.
Mitch had a lot of respect for the Apaches. Every time they came into the valley a flurry of RPGs and small arms fire was thrown their way. He’d seen two surface-to-air missiles go up—probably Strelas—and on one occasion was sure there was a light anti aircraft gun further up the valley. Throw up that much shit and some of it would stick. He knew those birds were taking hits, going back to the FARP for more fuel and ammo and a jury-rigged patch up job and getting back on station as fast as they could. Fewer of them were coming back to the valley though.
“Hey Chook!”
“Yeah Mitch,” replied the radio operator.
“Any word from the Warrant?” asked Lane. Since TF Summit was the force deploying immediately next to the TF 64 screen, the Aussies had assigned one of their Warrant Officers and a radio operator to accompany the assault force as a liaison officer.
“Yeah, he gave Sunray a SITREP just a few minutes ago. They’re doing OK but there’s Yanks going down all around them. The Talibs are mostly overshooting their position, but the damn mortars are really effective.”
As the day wore on the situation was getting ever more frustrating. Clearly their job was to observe the valley and the escape routes and to engage the enemy with air strikes. They were not to engage personally thus giving away their own position and risk being taken out. The matter was academic anyway. The Talib positions on the forward slope of their own mountain were masked by the crest of the mountain and not really visible to them. They did hear the reports from two mortars firing from two separate hidden positions below but could see no sign of them. Every now and then they could hear the report of a howitzer firing below them but again the gun position was obscured to them. Luckily the gun seemed unable to depress far enough to hit the Yanks and the rounds overshot them landing on the ridge beyond. Positions that were visible were too far out for their small arms, even the sixteen hundred meter maximum range of the PKs.
So they sat and watched the boiling ant’s nest in the valley and on the rare occasions that air was available, they had the illusionary satisfaction that they were actually contributing to the fight.
 

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CHAPTER 4

HLZ13A, Lower Shah-i-Kot Valley
Saturday 2 Mar 2002 2015 hrs AFT

Phil listened to the chopping, thumping sound of the helicopter’s blades as they approached the darkened HLZ. Each chopper had its own distinctive sound. This was clearly a Pave Hawk. The medevac was inbound and in response enemy fire started to pick up again. Included once again were RPGs.
This was a new lesson for Phil. He had never heard of RPGs used against aircraft but it was clear that this was a perfected tactic here. These weren’t random shots but instead volleys of five or six would be fired at one time. Clearly someone was controlling the fire and the enemy appeared to have a nearly unlimited supply to use them like this.
A Company and the scouts had done well, as had C Company, but they’d received quite a shit kicking today. Here at the Bowl, one in every four men was wounded—luckily none had been fatalities and none of the wounds were life threatening. The 120mm mortar had been in action until almost noon. They’d sustained a mortar round landing in their midst which had fortunately caused no casualties: a second incoming round subsequently had been more effective, resulting in several wounded and the mortar KO’d. The detachment and the squad from CHARLIE’s 2nd Platoon were pulled into the Bowl.
Another mortar round had struck inside the Bowl near the battalion’s TAC wounding amongst others the deputy commander and the CSM.
The afternoon had been an exercise of maintaining the status quo. The growing number of wounded had forced Phil to face calling for Medevac during the daylight—with what could have been potentially disastrous results for the choppers and the wounded—or waiting for nightfall. The battalion surgeon, who had deployed with the TAC and had himself been wounded, and his medics had stabilized the wounded. The surgeon had felt certain that they would be able to maintain the injured until nightfall. Decision made. Phil had declined to make a call for daytime casualty evacuation.
One problem had been their small arms. The venerable M4s and SAWs were great for close combat but lacked punch at longer ranges. He remembered reading about how Soviet tactics had evolved to deal with Mujahideen ambushes. The Mujahideen used AKs which had limited accuracy beyond three hundred meters and limited effect beyond eight hundred. In consequence, they always tried to get in close to the Soviets who in time learned to stand off beyond three hundred meters and use their heavier crew served weapons with effect. Now Phil’s troops were the recipients of this tactic as the enemy stood off and hammered them with mortars and heavy machine guns. That’s not to say there wasn’t any AQ rifle or light machine gun fire. There was plenty. It just wasn’t accurate. That and their body armor which proved effective against these longer range rounds and the relatively light mortar fragments had kept their wounded for the most part in the non-critical category.
Ammunition supply had become a problem. On contact with the enemy, light infantry was trained to drop their packs in order to enhance their ability to maneuver. They’d be recovered after winning the fire fight. Accordingly, most of C Company had dropped their heavy rucks shortly after disembarking the Chinooks. Since they’d never won the fire fight, much of their spare ammo was lying scattered around the area in the packs. Orders went out for conservation of ammo and a number of forays were made outside the perimeter in order to recover what rucks they could.
The day wore on, hallmarked by one act after another of heroism as troopers exposed themselves to enemy fire in order to bring the wounded back to positions of relative safety. Phil had been mightily impressed with the young medics who were treating their first ever combat casualties. Most of them, like the battalion surgeon, were wounded themselves. Similarly he had been impressed with the two Australian liaisons who had equally pitched in when it came time to get wounded back from exposed positions and fight back against the surrounding enemy.
Close air support had been generally of limited effect and the badly shot-up Apaches were struggling to provide sporadic support. By mid afternoon effective air support was no longer available. Consequently there came another coordinated assault by a determined enemy. The attack lasted almost half an hour until beaten down by C Company’s defensive fire and long range sniper fire from the scouts on the slope of Takur Gar. Phil estimated that there were some two to three hundred AQ in the three villages and another one hundred on several positions on the ridges to the east and the west.
RAK 6, the commander of TF Rakkasan had pulled back from reinforcing the operation during daylight. The HLZs were simply not secure enough, the weather was marginal and there was insufficient air support. But things couldn’t stay as they were and orders went out that in the absence of the Afghan militia to sweep the valley into the blocking forces, the northerly 2nd of the 187th Infantry was tasked to consolidate and prepare for the sweep. Concentrating made sense. It was clear they were outnumbered and the various blocking positions were not capable of mutually supporting each other. It was concentrate, leave or be defeated in detail.
Phil wanted very badly to bring in the rest of his battalion. He’d deployed with less than a third of it on the first lift. In fact Phil commanded something less than one rifle company on the ground. All of B Company and several platoons of each of A and C and his mortars were still at Bagram. If they could come in after dark, they could use the night to take the fight to the enemy. Initially he had received approval to reinforce after last light. The helicopters that would take out his wounded would bring in every 60mm, 81mm and 120mm mortar that the battalion had as well as a generous supply of ammunition and C Company’s reserve platoon. They had come with a knife to a gun fight—Phil would change that. Phil had radioed back to Bagram and put the arrangements in place. Later, RAK-6 had become more equivocal and there had even been talk of evacuating the entire Brigade from the valley. The ships coming in now would be Pave Hawk medevacs and not the heavier Chinooks.
The sun had slowly made its way down below the western ridges and Phil ordered IR markers to be set out on the broken ground to mark their perimeter for the Spectre gunships and to identify the LZ for the expected helicopters. At 1830 hrs it was dark enough for a Spectre gunship to be on station. It came right on the heels of a B-52 unloading on the most threatening enemy in the village of Marzak. The Spectre’s night vision equipment did what fast air and B52’s couldn’t—find the enemy in groups and as individuals and destroy them with pin point accuracy. When obvious targets for the gunships ran low, the troops in the Bowl helped things out. They randomly fired at suspected locations drawing retaliatory enemy fire at which point the troops would then aim their rifles’ laser sights at the enemy position marking them for the Spectre’s attention. On the ground, the troops watched the rounds coming in and cheered as their day’s tormentors got payback in spades. An hour later, enemy fire had died down significantly. Phil concluded that it was time to bring in the medevac helicopters.
On their initial approach rifle fire and RPGs caused an initial wave off but the choppers returned after a few minutes and landed.
Phil was at the HLZ watching C Company and the medics get the twelve most serious casualties loaded on the Pave Hawk when he heard the thwump of a mortar tube firing on the ridge. Everyone hunkered down in whatever shallow depressions were available and made themselves smaller. A solitary individual who had gotten off the chopper and had begun to walk up the hill towards him also had taken cover. Twenty five seconds later the round impacted with the distinctive krump of an AQ 82mm round.
“Sir,” yelled Phil’s ETAC, “NAIL-21 has the mortar and is engaging.”
“Good,” he said and watched as a cone of red tracers came down from the orbiting AC-130 gunship to the northwest onto a ridge across the valley. Green tracers rose back up into the air but their trajectories were more like water coming from a garden hose, first rising up but then arcing back down well short of the gunship.
Phil looked over to the point of impact of the mortar and saw that it was about fifteen meters from the soldier from the chopper who was now picking himself up and dusting himself off. He started down the slope and even using night vision goggles could make out the different shade of the uniform, the pattern of the equipment and the IR Canadian flag on the sleeve. The Canadians had deployed in their woodlands pattern CADPAT—a digital blend of light and dark green, brown and black rather than their three shades of brown arid pattern. Kurt had said that the in-house joke was that the Liberal politicians who had sent them wanted to make sure they looked different from the Americans. Kurt in his cynicism, however, was sure that there wasn’t a Liberal politician alive who knew what a Canadian army uniform looked like much less that they came in different colors. Instead he was sure that it was really the bean-counting bureaucrats who had decided it would cost too much to quickly buy sufficient equipment in a more appropriate color. Kurt had been bit-by-bit washing the uniform with a touch of bleach to tone down the colors. Phil couldn’t be too critical. His own troops, while wearing their coffee stain desert combat uniform, also wore MOLLE and body armor that was primarily green.
 

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Chapter 4 (Cont'd)

“Kurt? What the hell are you doing out here?” he asked.
“I was told you were looking for reinforcements so I’m answering the call,” Richter quipped.
“Seriously. What are you doing out here?”
“Seriously. I was getting sick and tired of the bullshit going on back at Bagram,” Kurt replied. “Do you know the Aussies have a better word than REMF? It’s PONTI—Person of No Tactical Importance. K-Bar’s full of PONTIs. Why in the name of Christ would anyone form a special ops task force in a land-locked country full of deserts and mountains and then fill it with sailors and have it run by more sailors who come from a training command and who were working on an island fifteen hundred kilometers away from here? Anyway, since the ODAs with the Afghans won’t be here anytime soon, I’ve been tasked to put together several site exploitation teams to work with the AFO and the Rakkasans. No one back at Bagram could tell me how things really were out here so I hitched a ride on the medevac to have a look for myself.”
“Well you won’t find out here. I haven’t heard from RAK-6 as to what his plan is for us. He’s reorganizing the 2nd of the 187th to prepare to sweep down the valley so I presume that now we’ll be the anvil and they’ll be the hammer.”
Their attention was drawn downhill to the HLZ as they heard the engines on the medevacs increase power for lift off. The sound drew another flurry of wild rifle, machine gun and RPG fire from the area of the ridges and the villages. The orbiting gunship opened up in response.
“Well there go my twelve most serious casualties. God willing they’ll all pull through.” Phil paused for a moment listening to the blade flutter recede safely into the distance. He turned to the small group of RTOs that had accompanied him, “Come on. Let’s get back up to the TAC.”
They walked quietly and deliberately up the hill, conserving their energy. As they made their way across the Bowl, Phil stopped in to see the medics and some of the remaining wounded to see how they were bearing up and to offer words of encouragement.
“Morale seems good,” offered Kurt.
“Yeah,” replied Phil. “They’re tired. They’ve burned a lot of adrenalin today and the altitude takes a toll but all-in-all, my boys want to take the fight to these bastards. This is why they came here.”
They came to a small hollow where three members of the TAC had stretched out and were getting some sleep. The RTOs took off their manpacks and set them up in a small arc around what had become their command post.
“Be it ever so humble,” said Phil and pointed out a spot for Kurt to sit down.
Kurt sat and shrugged off his pack. Anyone for some coffee?” he asked.
“I’m not sure we have any made up,” said Phil.
“I wasn’t asking for coffee. I was offering,” said Kurt as he loosened three thermos bottles that had been strapped to his pack and passed them around.
“NATO standard,” he said referring to the fact that the coffee had both cream and sugar.
Phil’s RTO had just finished filling his cup with hot coffee when he paused, put down the cup and activated his radio, “SUMMIT-6. Wait. Out.”
“Sir,” he said. “RAK-6 Actual for SUMMIT-6 Actual.”
Phil also put down his cup, pulled out and opened up his map case, moved next to the RTO and took the brigade command net radio’s handset. “RAK-6 this is SUMMIT-6 Actual. Over.”
The staff sitting around the TAC watched knowing that their future was undoubtedly being decided at this point.
“SUMMIT-6. I agree with that. Our estimates here are that there are probably still 200 to 300 AQ around the three villages and maybe another hundred in the hills split between the ridge to the west and the mountain sides to our east. The south appears relatively clear. Over.”
Phil paused again while RAK-6 spoke.
“SUMMIT-6. ALPHA has had no casualties and is fully effective with one platoon and the scouts and snipers; CHARLIE has had 29 wounded, 12 evacuated, the remainder lightly wounded at this location with approximately one platoon effective but low on ammunition. Morale is high and we’re covering EVE fully and GINGER and HEATHER by observation and fire. Over.”
Phil paused again and Kurt could see him tensing up with what he was hearing.
“SUMMIT-6. In my opinion we should hold here. We have clearly hit on a large concentration of AQ. We’re sitting on their MSR and are blocking both their escape south and east and preventing reinforcements from coming to the valley. They may want to fight now but give it a day or two and they’ll want to run and we’ll be able to stop them. We’ve got the night now and with Spectre support we can maneuver up to better blocking positions. I’d like the rest of my battalion here but if we have lift restrictions then if we beef up CHARLIE with its remaining platoon and the rest of my mortars, we’ll be able to hold here while the 2nd of the 187th pushes south. Over.”
Phil paused again.
“SUMMIT-6. That’s my view sir. We came here expecting fewer enemy and planning to emplace two companies in the south to block. We’ve found three to four times the number we expected and landed only half of our own force but have held them. In my view, if we bring our forces up to what we originally planned, we will still be able to complete our mission. We’ve hurt the AQ here badly with the little we have on the ground. We’ve got a great opportunity to shut this bunch down. We shouldn’t let go of that. Over.”
A long pause.
“SUMMIT-6. Roger. Out.”
Phil turned to one of the TAC staff. “Go find CHARLIE’s commander and have him join me here.”
He turned to Kurt and talked quietly. “Brigade wants to pull us out and regroup for another mission. He’s talking about having the 2nd of the 187th regroup up north and then have them sweep down the valley.”
“So much for we own the night, huh?” Kurt quipped. “You guys will be giving up a major advantage here. With the numbers you’ve got you’re vulnerable, but if they can get in to pick you up then they can get in to reinforce you.”
“Don’t get me started Kurt. You’ve heard me argue that. If I had confirmation that more of my boys and our mortars were coming then I could get all our wounded out, and have a plan ready to maneuver against the guys on the ridge and to bottle up the guys in the valley. Man, we’ve held out with sixty effectives against hundreds. If I had my other two hundred guys here with my mortars and heavier machine guns, there’s no way those people would leave this valley through here. Hell, I told RAK-6 that if I just had the rest of C Company here I could hold this position.” He paused. “What’s the attitude at Bagram?”
“I’m just a fly on the wall there, Phil. They don’t pay much attention to a Canadian major. My own view is that the command structure is screwed up. The task force structure over here has been cobbled together from a whole bunch of disparate elements without setting up a true unified command. The hope is that everyone will cooperate and coordinate towards the common goal but the moving parts are coming apart. RAK-6 is trying to solve problems that should have been solved a level up but I think even more so there are too many chiefs even further back up the chain each running their own agenda.”
“Yeah. Air and aviation have been a problem. The choppers and their crews have been bloody fabulous. The Apaches have been a life saver here. The trouble is that there aren’t enough of them: they’re taking heavy damage and I don’t think can work at their optimum in this environment. Like you said though: if they can get in here to get us out, they can get reinforcements in. If a decision were made now they should be able to get here around midnight and by morning we’d have the positions we want set up.” Phil paused then changed the subject. “How are your guys doing?”
“K-Bar put in sixteen teams to the north and east. Thirteen successfully and three we had to pull out for various reasons. Task Force 11 has a Seal team to your west on the finger ridge and there are two Delta teams at the north end of the valley. You know the Aussies are all mostly all in and doing their thing screening your south and east?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a Warrant and his RTO with us for liaison. I’m told they’ve got folks in special reconnaissance OPs as well as road blocks. He tells me they’re having trouble with the rules of engagement as they can’t stop unarmed folks from moving around. He figures that unarmed fighting-age males have been dribbling into the valley today and that we should expect a flood tonight and tomorrow. My guess is with the way they’re defending this place, there are more than enough weapons here to equip an army. The concern was that they’d run away when the reality is that they’re getting reinforcements and we’re not stopping it.”
“Do you have anything around that big mother over there?” Kurt asked gesturing towards Takur Gar.
“Nope. I have ALPHA and my scouts and your boys at the base but the AQ own everything above that.”
“Sir,” the RTO holding out the handset. “RAK-6 Actual.”
“Thanks,” said Phil. “SUMMIT-6 Actual, Over.”
Kurt sat back and watched his friend’s face become tight as he listened to the radio.
“SUMMIT-6. Roger. I’ll need about an hour and a Spectre for us to collect our gear and get ready. Over.”
The C Company commander picked that moment to walk up to the TAC. Phil held up a finger while he continued to listen to the radio. “SUMMIT-6. Roger. Out,” he said and handed the handset back to the RTO.
“Gather around,” he said. “ALPHA and the scouts will move out of their present position to join up with the 2nd of the 187th and come under their command. The rest of us are being pulled out to go back to Bagram to refit for another mission. The Spectre is being pulled off right now to refuel and when it’s back on station we will have one hour to recover our kit out there and then load up under their cover. Any questions?”
“Is anyone coming in to replace us here, sir?”
“No. Task Force-64 will cover the gaps with fast air support. Any other questions?” There being none Phil continued. “Okay. Pass the word and get ready to get that gear once I give you the word the gunship is back. We’ll have to coordinate tightly with the air. I don’t want anyone hit now but we don’t want to leave anything for the AQ.” Phil turned to the battalion net RTO. “Get me SUMMIT-16’s Actual and the scouts’ Actual on the line.”
Kurt had been giving the matter some thought. Head back with Phil or join up with ALPHA and the scouts to go up the valley? Kurt was concerned about the northern position. If he went with ALPHA not only would he get a better appreciation of the valley but he might even get up north quicker than if he went back to Bagram and then tried to hitch a ride back.
On the other hand there was organization required back at Bagram. There simply wasn’t time to do both and at the moment he didn’t have a 2i/c or XO to handle the details. He’d have to sort that out. Kurt really had no choice: he would have to fly back with Phil.
“Phil.”
“Yeah.”
“How far away are the scouts.”
Phil thought for a minute. “ALPHA’s about seventeen hundred meters northeast but about three hundred meters up the slope. The scouts would be a couple of hundred meters this side and upslope from there.”
“That’s not enough time to get there. Do you mind if I take a few minutes to talk to your S2 and see what intelligence he’s worked up on the bad guys’ known positions. I’ll also try to raise Shirazi on my squad radio. I really am worried about this gap that’s being left here.”
Kurt wasn’t the only one and they wanted eyes up on Takur Ghar.
 

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CHAPTER 5

Takur Ghar
Monday 4 Mar 2002 0245 hrs AFT

A hand was shaking Norowz awake. Hard. “Helicopter! Helicopter!”
He instantly became alert and grabbed the Kalashnikov beside his bed. “Where?”
“On the peak. Over by the Uzbeks.”
Norowz didn’t argue. He could hear it now. He cursed himself for having to be awakened. He shouldn’t have had to have been as the sound was loud enough that it should have roused him from his sleep.
It seemed ridiculous that a helicopter would be trying to land up here on the peak but he could hear the rotors beating hard against the thin air. It wasn’t just transiting close to their position but was trying to land somewhere up the slope from him. “Wake the others! Get them dressed and armed and have them stand-to but tell them to stay in their bunkers until I say otherwise.”
“Yes commander.” The sentry rushed off to alert the group.”
Norowz set the rifle aside, shook off the blankets he was wrapped in, slipped into his felt boots, down jacket and ammunition pouches and then again picked up his rifle. A shiver shook him thoroughly. While sleeping, his body had sweat into his shalwar kameez and the sweater he had worn to bed. Now he would pay for that extra warmth he’d had in bed because the damp clothes provided almost no insulation from the frigid wind.
There was fresh snow.
He looked out from his bunker across to the Uzbek’s position just in time to see the flash of the launch of an RPG, and almost instantly the bright flash of an impact explosion. Silhouetted in the fireball was one of the monstrously large twin rotor troop carriers that the Americans used. He could clearly see its rear ramp down and its rear wheels almost resting against the ground.
The flash temporarily blinded Norowz but he could hear the chatter of the Uzbeks’ AKs and briefly he heard bursts of an American machine gun and what were now the screaming engines of the helicopter pulling power. Two more RPG explosions went off either on, in or near the helicopter. He couldn’t be sure which from where he was watching. He could make out, however, that the helicopter was still in a hover. By this time many of the rounds being fired at the helicopter from the peak were smacking into and over Norowz’s position.
There was a sudden change in the sound of the engines and he could hear the machine arc around and drop over the edge of the mountain heading to the southwest then circle back up to the peak and then again break away. Eventually Norowz could hear its sounds die away up the valley to the north.
With the chopper gone, Norowz’s attention was drawn to further gunfire on the ridge. He could distinguish the bursts of an American light machine gun from the low drawn out cracks of the Uzbeks’ AKs. Sporadic outbursts of firing on peak continued for a considerable period of time; finally a long pause; then a single AK shot; then absolute silence.


Two days before, after Norowz and Mohmad had heard the gunship to the north, Norowz had returned to break his fast with his men. They had just started eating when they heard helicopters enter the valley below. Pulling blankets over themselves to camouflage themselves and to reduce their heat signatures, they crawled to the knoll’s edge and watched the flashes of rifles and machine guns and RPGs and mortars on the lower slopes of the mountains some two kilometers away. Well out of the range for the weapons that they had.
As the dawn came up, Norowz used the field telephone that ran from his position to that of the Uzbeks on the peak and from there to their command post on the slope below to report the positions of the Americans that he could see. He was told the reports weren’t necessary. The commanders below could see the Americans clearly from their own positions on the slopes of Takur Ghar and those on the slopes of Tir Gol Ghar—the mountainous ridge on the west side of the valley.
With nothing to do but to watch the slopes below and to give warning of any additional forces approaching, Norowz and his group had sat by and watched the battle rage below them all day. The first night they had heard the helicopters come in three times, once not long after nightfall, then in the middle of the night and finally several hours before dawn. Since they stayed under cover and were too far away to participate, they were spared the bombings and attack helicopter gun runs during the day and the gunships’ rain of death during the night.
Norowz was sure the Americans were reinforcing their positions but with the dawn it became clear that they had in fact abandoned their positions. Norowz couldn’t believe it. With all their technology, the Americans were no better than the Soviets had been. They had fought fiercely all day but, at the first sign of strong resistance they had fled under the cover of night. The Uzbeks had bragged that the Americans were nothing but cowards and that the Sheik had predicted that once they took a few casualties they would lose the stomach for a fight and go home to America. To the Afghani Norowz, however, there was no shame in leaving a bad position to come back and fight another day elsewhere. In fact it was the prudent and right thing to do. He had just thought that the Americans with their overwhelming power wouldn’t end up in that position.
The word came around by radio that helicopters had landed at the north end of the valley too but there it became clear that the Americans had not left but had brought in more troops. A half hour later another outpost reported seeing about thirty Americans moving along the low slope on the northwest side of Takur Ghar heading north. As the morning progressed other groups of Americans were seen to be heading north. But if they were concentrating in the north, then who was watching the trails heading east and south?
A few air strikes and firefights took place towards the north and that afternoon what looked like a further one hundred Americans were brought in to the north end of the valley by helicopter. After dark the helicopters came again. It was too few to take out all the Americans now gathering there so clearly they were bringing in even more. While Norowz had not been sure before if the Americans were gathering to pull out or to attack, he now firmly believed that they were concentrating and that tonight or tomorrow morning they would probably sweep down the valley in force to clear it.
The Americans were not the only ones being reinforced. Word came up to them that all the villages in the surrounding region were sending fighters. Some came the first day, more the first night and second day and on this, the second night many more were making their way through the valleys from all directions but the one in the northern area where the Americans still sat. They came mostly unarmed in order to avoid being targeted on the way. The Americans and their allies were being scrupulous about not targeting unarmed men. It was said even ones bearing arms were not targeted unless they fired on the Americans. It made moving reinforcements much easier as long as one had weapons and ammunition available in secure caches and this entire region was covered with bunkers and caves filled to the brim. The Soviets’d had no such scruples. They had killed anything that they could. Entire villages, towns, farming regions, herds: anything which could give support to the Mujahideen had been annihilated.
He had gone to bed that night not knowing if they would stand and fight the Americans or pull out. In the face of a determined enemy they had learned to set out a rearguard and head for a sanctuary. But here they were in a good place and more brothers were coming in every hour.
Then the helicopter had come.

Norowz waited for ten minutes after the last shot before calling over to Mohmad who told him that they had killed an American and had swept the crest and found it clear of the enemy.
Norowz doubled the sentries and stood all but the sentries down for what was left of the night. He contemplated going over to speak to Mohmad but decided against it. The Uzbeks were probably trigger happy by now and the risk of being shot when walking over in the dark was entirely too high and unnecessary.
It was just over two hours since the helicopter had come and Norowz sat down on his blankets in his bunker, set down his Kalashnikov and started to pull off his ammunition pouches when he heard the rhythmic thumping of another two rotor chopper coming up the valley. Closer and closer. Merciful God. They wouldn’t dare. He thought. If they are coming back they’ll hit us with bombs first. He stuck his head out of his bunker and yelled. “Stay in your bunkers! Keep your heads down!”
But no bombs came: just the helicopter. He kept his head out and listened as it flew past and he could hear the rotors again as they beat hard in preparation for a landing. It’s the same spot. They’re coming in to the same spot. The Uzbeks opened up as the helicopter was still short of its landing zone. He could hear the slow mechanical chatter of the Uzbeks’ 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine gun amongst the AK bursts and a few bursts of the American helicopter’s machine guns.
This time there were no RPG flashes to let Norowz see the action but he knew it was a different fight. The helicopter was down for only a few seconds before he heard it increase power and lift off and then drop down over the northern ridge to disappear into the valley below. Now there was more firing and Norowz was sure he heard the sounds of several American M4s, their light and medium machine guns and grenades.
There was no sense in getting his people into this fight. There was no way to distinguish between friend and foe from here. They would hold here until the Uzbeks asked for help or if the Americans tried to come to this end of the saddle. The firing continued heavily for almost twenty minutes and then petered out.
Norowz had heard the gunship circling above and now heard the first report of its cannon firing followed almost immediately by the sharp crump of a high explosive shell impacting on the crest. Dozens of rounds followed in rapid succession spaced maybe twenty to thirty seconds apart hitting every part of the crest but falling short of Norowz’s position. As it was, he heard the sound of splinters swishing through their position and kept his head ducked down. He had seen artillery round fragments. They weren’t tiny pieces like those of hand grenades or even mortars. They were shards of steel, sometimes as long as his forearm and as wide as his hand with razor sharp edges. While most splinters stayed close to the burst, in rocky areas like here, they often flew hundreds of meters and would flense a body with a touch.
He’d lost count by the time the fire stopped, but it must have been near to a hundred rounds that had been fired. There were other rounds impacting now: mortars from the valley below were landing on the crest. Norowz doubted that the Americans had landed mortars there. They must be our own mortars. They know we’re in bunkers and the Americans are in the open. It makes sense.
The gunfire started again this time on the east slope of the peak. Norowz peered hard into the gloom. Dawn was breaking but it was still too dark to make out anything.
The fire again slackened but he could still hear, and occasionally see, the gunship circling overhead. Two SA-7s streaked up to seek it out but failed to find anything.
“Commander!”
Norowz turned around and looked to where his deputy had his position. “Yes Tofan. What is it?”
“The telephone to the Uzbeks is out.”
“I understand.” If the telephone is out to the Uzbeks then it’s out to our command post too. “We’ll use the walkie-talkie when we need it but no calls right now. Stay silent.”
“Yes commander. Prayers and food?”
“Pass the word. Let every man make his own prayers and eat. Make sure every bunker has enough food for the day. No moving in the open. Use the bunkers and communications trenches only. I don’t think we’re finished here today.”


Norowz didn’t expect how right he would be. They had barely had time for prayers as the sun was touching the crest, glinting off the snow, while the valley was still dark when the jets came. The first dropped a bomb far off: the second ran in from the west and unloaded right on the top of the Uzbeks’ position.
Fifteen minutes later yet another chopper overflew the mountain.
Norowz shouted, “Be ready. If another one comes and if you can get a clear shot without hitting the Uzbeks, then you will fire. Pass it on.”
He listened as the word was spread around the position and watched for the helicopter’s return. It did come back and circled another time and then approached from the south flying directly over Norowz’s position on their way to the same landing site on the peak. Praise Allah. They are doing it again. Will they never learn? Their commanders must be complete idiots.
A smattering of fire went up from the south side of Norowz’s position and it grew as the helicopter flew over them. The highest rate of fire came as the helicopter was about thirty or forty meters from landing when most of Norowz’s men and all the Uzbeks opened up. Norowz watched as the right hand engine cowling blew to shreds while the helicopter was still in the air and then watched the machine smack down hard and wobble until the blades ground to a stop. This one isn’t getting away. This one is staying here. Why would they try to land here again?
The helicopter sat on the steep slope nose up facing away from and significantly higher up than Norowz and his group. It was almost on top of the Uzbeks and he could hear the chatter of gunfire all around the peak. Several RPG flashes occurred on or near the helicopter. Norowz’s troops had stopped their fire. Their AKs were old leftovers from the Soviet era with iron sights. At the best of times they were accurate to one hundred meters and effective to three hundred. These weren’t the best of times however. Their rifles were clapped out and the decades old ammunition marginal. With the Uzbeks and the Americans so close together it was not the place for indiscriminate fire. It would have been nice to have even one of the Soviets’ Dragunov sniper rifles but they didn’t.
From what Norowz could tell through his binoculars—they fogged and iced up frequently—there were several Americans around the helicopter and amongst the rocks to its east. The Uzbeks were all around and higher up. From time-to-time one or the other would pop up and trade rifle or machine gun fire or throw or fire a grenade.
Time passed without any change then he heard a yell from behind him. “Jet fighter! Jet fighter! Southeast!”
Norowz turned in time to see the jet approach and overfly the Uzbeks position without shooting. He watched it as it arced around and came on another run. This time as the jet dove in Norowz could see flares popping out behind the aircraft and then saw a large black cloud expand below the fighter. For a split second he thought the fighter had been hit but then there came a tearing, ripping sound and he could see cannon fire erupting on the Uzbeks’ position. Rocks went flying and pine trees were blown to shreds. The fighter had made a gun run and he now understood that the cloud he had seen had been the casings from its 20mm cannon dropping away from the plane. The planes came again and again.
It had been more than two hours since the helicopter had crashed and still the firefight at the crest continued.
It was the mortars that changed things. Norowz heard the faint hollow thump of the tube on the valley floor to the east and some ten seconds later the crump of the impact a few feet away from the helicopter. It was the most accurate mortar shooting he had ever seen. Shooting up and down mountain slopes is not an easy task even for the best trained crew and observer yet round after round impacted in the middle of the Americans’ position. That took real talent and the Uzbeks must still have some communications with the valley floor.
The mortars undoubtedly brought back the jets that this time attacked from the north. He watched three impacts. The first on the north slope of the peak, the other two ever nearer. Each burst brought a rain of splinters—much bigger than the ones from the artillery—that flew over top of the Americans to rain down everywhere including on Norowz’s position. A scream followed by a wail broke out behind him. Norowz scuttled through the low communication trench to the sound of the wail, meeting Tofan along the way.
“It’s at Azlan’s bunker,” he said.
They turned in the trench and made their way into the northernmost of the two bunkers facing the north east. Inside had been two men, one of whom, a youth of about seventeen years, was gibbering in the corner trying to distance himself from the body of the second that had collapsed on the ground.
Norowz pointed at the whimpering man. “Take him away to Darmal’s bunker and leave him there. Then come back here.” Darmal was one of the older fighters prized for his patience and skills as a healer.
Norowz bent down beside Azlan’s body and turned him over and understood why the youth had screamed. Azlan had undoubtedly been looking out through the firing port of the bunker when the last bomb went off. A rogue shard the size of a plate had torn through the port and struck him directly in the face at an angle that ran from the left eye to the right corner of his mouth. Everything above that line had been torn away and smashed into the back wall of the bunker which was now covered with a spray of bone, hair, brains and bloody tissue. What was left of the contents of his head was slowly seeping away into a puddle of gore on the ground. The muscles in the body had relaxed and a foul odor from between Azlan’s legs was already filling the bunker.
Norowz lowered his head, “O Allah! Forgive him and have Mercy on him and give him strength and pardon him. Be generous to him and cause his entrance to be wide and wash him with water and snow. Cleanse him of his transgressions as white cloth is cleansed of stains. Give him an abode better than his home and a family better than his family and a wife better than his wife. Take him into Paradise and protect him from the punishment of the grave and of the fire.” That’s all we can do for the time old friend.
In the tumult he almost missed the sound of yet one more helicopter. At first he thought this must be the attack helicopter that had fired the missiles but he soon recognized it as the deeper beat of one of the large two rotor ones. While he could hear it he could not see it. It was clearly on the north side of the peak and while the sound changed from time-to-time it stayed there for a considerable period.
Norowz stayed a while until Tofan returned. Tofan took a quick look and said matter of factly, “None of the men will use this bunker even when the body is removed.”
“I believe that is true,” replied Norowz. “I’ve said a brief dua for the dead. It will have to suffice for now. Leave the youth with Darmal but take the man who was with Darmal before and bring him over to the northeast. We need to keep that side covered.”
Tofan nodded and they both returned to their respective bunkers.
 

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CHAPTER 5 (Cont'd)

Norowz returned to his bunker in time to see first one, then another missile slam into one of the Uzbek bunkers on the peak throwing more rocks and pine tree fragments into the air. The missile was one like those fired by the attack helicopters but there were none of those to be seen in the area. Try as he might, he could not see or hear the source of the missiles.
The morning wore on with the sun now high in the sky creating a glare off the newly fallen snow which, notwithstanding the freezing temperature, was now melting. Small trickles of icy water were starting to seep into his bunker where it made a greasy slick reddish muck. He rolled up his blankets and any other gear on the floor and moved them to a small shelf dug into the walls. Norowz took the opportunity to nap for half an hour.
He awoke to another heavy flurry of fire that picked up for a few minutes on the peak. The mortar fire at this point shifted as well from the peak down onto the slope to the northeast. Small arms fire was now also sounding from the valley to the east and Norowz started to look for a position that would let him scan the slope better.
He made his way back through the trenches to Azlan’s bunker and found a spot to the side that gave him both cover and a clear view of the eastern slope of Takur Ghar. The mountain’s crest, where the Uzbeks and Americans now fought was on the northernmost part of the mountain. Norowz was positioned on a spur that ran downhill from the crest southwest some four hundred meters. This was not the only spur however. Another even longer one, maybe eight hundred meters long ran to the southeast twenty to forty meters below Norowz’s spur. Everything to the north and east of that spur was completely hidden from Norowz’s view. But at a certain point anyone coming up on the spur would become visible amongst the rocks and pines clinging to the sheer slopes.
From time to time during the morning he had seen movement amongst the trails and rocks on the southeastern side of the mountain. From the fact that these areas were also being bombed at intervals, he considered those people to be their own fighters, trying to come to help those in the valley. This time as he looked down onto the slopes heading down to the gorge, he could hear firing.
But for that firing from below and the new snow covering the slopes, Norowz may have missed them, particularly with Azlan’s bunker out of action. He knew that there had to be a reason for the activity so he stayed in place and continued to scan the slopes almost directly to his east with his binoculars.
There you are!
One… Two… Three… A string of men, now obvious in their dark uniforms against the brilliant snow, were making their way up along the slope heading diagonally up to the crest.
Four hundred meters from here. Maybe five. Probably three hundred out from the Uzbeks.
“Tofan! Can you hear me?”
“Yes, commander.”
“Call the Uzbeks on the radio. If you can get through to them tell them there are another ten or twelve Americans moving up the mountain on the east slope approximately three hundred meters out.”
“Yes, commander.”
Norowz pulled back into the communications trench and traversed ten meters to the south to the second bunker where he crowded in with the three men already there.
“Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allah, Commander," said the older man there.
“Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatulah wa barakatuh. God has brought us an enemy to kill this morning my brother. Come over here and let me show you, Shpoon”
Norowz guided the man to the firing port. Shpoon had been with him for four years now. In his mid thirties the lanky marijuana farmer had taken well to military service. A quiet man, face creased with deep crevices speaking of years of hardship and subsistence existence belying his relatively young age. A man of few words, he always quickly grasped Norowz’s directions and ensured they were not only carried out to the letter but very much with his leader’s intent. Only very rarely did Norowz have to explain anything twice.
The firing port’s front wall was made of pine logs laid lengthwise with a slit some two meters long and a third of a meter high. Above was a roof of logs and stones a meter thick to provide overhead protection.
They moved to the far left corner of the port. “Shpoon. Do you see the crest of the mountain?” he asked as he pointed out.
“Yes, Commander,” Shpoon replied.
He handed him the binoculars. “Do you see the large outcrop there?” Shpoon nodded. “Look down from it about thirty meters on the crest line. You should be able to see a line of men moving along the ridge.”
Shpoon focused the glasses and scanned the mountain for a minute. “I have them Commander.”
“Good. Point them out to your men and then kill them. Keep firing until they are dead or I tell you to stop. Understood?”
“Understood, Commander,” replied Shpoon with a grin.
Norowz slapped him on the back and made his way back to his bunker. On his way he called out, “Tofan! Have you made contact with the Uzbeks?”
“No, Commander. They do not answer.”
“Try reaching our command post.”
“Yes, Commander.”
Repositioned in his bunker he looked out at the same time that Shpoon and his men started opening up on the enemy. Through his binoculars he could watch the impact of the odd round against an exposed rock but by far most of the shots were absorbed, unseen, by the snow. In addition to his men’s fire, there were still shots coming from below and the occasional mortar round impacting on the slope.
“Commander?”
“Yes, Tofan.”
“We no longer have contact with our command post either. I’ve tried a few different frequencies and have got two stations, one in the west valley, one in the east. They don’t want to speak because the Americans are listening in.”
“Tell them anyway that we are fighting about thirty Americans up here. But first, I want you to bring four men from the south side up here. Put two in my bunker and two just over to the left where they can all shoot up the ridge line. There are more Americans coming up from the east over there who will meet up with the ones on the crest soon. When they come up we will start killing them.”
“Yes, Commander.” Tofan slid back from the bunker to carry out his orders.


It was almost eleven when the Americans came up from the eastern slope and moved around the large rock outcropping on the south side of the Uzbek’s position. They quickly took cover from the rounds striking all around them. The fire from Norowz’s position slackened as targets became hard to find.
No more than fifteen minutes later there was a massive outpouring of fire and explosions on the crest and Norowz ordered fire onto the site. He could see the battle move away from them. The combined American force was clearly taking the fight to what was left of the Uzbeks. He again stopped his men’s firing as the enemy came too close to the Uzbek’s position. Surprisingly, the American’s had not shot back in their direction. Apparently they had been entirely too focused on the enemy in their immediate area to notice the long range fire coming form Norowz’s position.
As the fight on the crest progressed and the fire started to slacken Norowz had doubts for the first time that day that he’d done enough. His biggest concern had been that if he added heavy fire to the battle it would hit the Uzbeks as badly as the Americans. There had been no question about moving in closer during the fight. The saddle was wide open and, if he had tried to move in, his men would have been easy targets for the Americans’ high tech rifles and machine guns. They would have been slaughtered. But perhaps they should have put heavy fire on the Americans regardless of the Uzbek positions. They had been in bunkers after all.
It was all too late now. He saw this ending badly for Mohmad’s people now that the Americans successfully reinforced their crashed helicopter and its crew. Even as the shooting had ended, he had Tofan bring all but one fighter up to this side of the position. The one was left to watch the pass to the south. The only movement down there had been their own fighters moving through the pass or along the slopes to reinforce the fight in the valley and trying to come up to fight the Americans here and to get in on the loot at the helicopter site. The rest of his men Norowz moved into north-facing firing positions amongst the rocks and the scrub trees that covered their knoll. Only three bunkers covered this direction: Azlan’s which none of the men would occupy, Norowz’s which was a small command bunker and not very large and one just to Norowz’s left which covered primarily the western slope but also covered the crashed helicopter and a bit to its right. Four men would be in bunkers; the other twenty he and Tofan positioned amongst the rocks wherever there was good cover. Ammunition was brought up including RPG rounds. Norowz knew that at this range the hit probability was less than twenty percent. In addition they had to shoot them uphill reducing accuracy even further. On the other hand, it was the only artillery he had to use.
It had taken twenty minutes but he had deployed twenty-three men with seventeen AK-47s, three PK medium machine guns and three RPK grenadiers in a line facing the peak. The fire had by now stopped on the peak and he could see Americans walking up on the crest. There was more activity around the helicopter. He directed the left of the line onto the helicopter and the rest on the crest and gave the order to fire.
Norowz watched the fall of shot and was satisfied that his men were being as effective as possible. He moved along the line, giving words of encouragement; pointing out targets; and calling God’s blessings down upon them. From-time-to-time as the enemy got under cover he would stop or slow the firing, hoping to entice targets to expose themselves. There was little need to conserve ammunition. They had plenty. He’d given the order to watch and shoot, leaving his men free to engage targets of opportunity.
He knew he was hurting the Americans. With the slope what it was and the numbers there, there was no way his men would be putting all that fire up there without causing some casualties. The Americans were not in prepared positions, merely scrambling amongst rocks and broken trees as most of his own men were. His men were fresh and after several weeks were more used to the mountains. The enemy had been fighting from dawn on or been climbing the mountain and would be exhausted. They were probably running low on ammunition—although they could always use some of the Uzbeks weapons.
He was surprised by the sudden weight of fire hitting the right flank of his position. Machine gun bursts kept stitching across the position, keeping his men’s heads down on that side but not really doing any damage that he could see.
“Commander!” it was Tofan. “There are machine guns on the other side of the gorge shooting at us.” Norowz gently raised his head and looked back to the south. He could see flashes from two guns on the mountain on the other side of the gorge and watched the splash of rounds hitting amongst his position. Who are they?
These guns complicated things. They weren’t causing casualties. The range was too far for accurate fire but there was no way they’d be able to pull off the mountain unscathed—especially in daylight. They’d have to defeat the Americans on the peak. If the American air would stay away, they ought to be able to beat them down with fire. There was no other way. Crossing the saddle was suicide for whichever side tried to do it, but in any event he would have several teams on the west side try to maneuver forward along the saddle looking for more advantageous firing positions. For the most part though, the Americans on the peak and his own troops were at a stalemate as far as movement was concerned.
He kept one eye on the enemy and one eye on the skies. Nothing yet.
But he knew the bombs would come.
 

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CHAPTER 6

Hill 3089
Monday 4 Mar 2002 0250 hrs AFT

Today had been more active than the day before. Once SUMMIT had pulled-pole during the night before last, there had been a pause. Mitch had put it down to the Talibs and AQ not being sure what was going on.
They had started yesterday morning with some probes but by ten the repositioning had started. It wasn’t much as it seemed most of the enemy were in the very fighting positions they wanted to be in. Mitch’s team had identified six heavy machine gun positions: two on Takur Ghar, two on the Whale, one on the ridge to their west which had been taken out and one down at the center of the villages. They had identified four mortar positions: a platoon of three 82mm ones on Takur Ghar’s western slope, two of 82mm and one of 120 mm on the slopes of the Whale and another 120mm one in the valley to their east. They were sure there was at least one 122mm howitzer below them in covered positions in the gorge and they had seen SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles rise up from three positions, one on Takur Ghar, one on the Whale and one from the village center. All had received air strikes and Apache attacks but apparently with minimal effect.
But having figured out that there were still Americans in the north and that they had in fact been reinforced during the night before, some of the enemy did start heading back to the villages and then up the valley. When air was available, the ETAC with Mitch’s patrol would direct runs at them but effectively the number of sorties available were few and far between. It wasn’t so much that there weren’t any available, but by now there must have been twenty air controllers on the ground all vying for priority in a small space just a few miles across. The small ASOC at Bagram was well in over its head in trying to deal with its inadequate resources and communications to deconflict both airspace and priorities. Piss-poor planning produces piss-poor performance, the ETAC had taken to muttering.
Later in the day they noticed activity to the east and south as small groups of men started making their way along the ratlines heading through the mountains and into the valley. There were two routes in particular. Between their position and Takur Ghar to their north was a deep gorge—four hundred meters deep over a width of a little over a kilometer—which led straight to the now vacant GINGER blocking position. On the other side of their mountain ran a similar gorge which separated them from Petsawul Ghar to the south. Petsawul Ghar at 3198 meters was maybe twenty meters higher than Takur Ghar and accordingly a hundred meters higher than their position. This second gorge also ran into the Shah-i-Kot valley towards the villages, going right through the also vacant HEATHER blocking position which was located between Mitch’s mountain and Khosa Chinah, the long finger-like ridge coming into the valley from the southwest. This was the ridge RAK-6 had been on the first day and night. Khosa Chinah had been unoccupied by friendly forces since RAK-6 had left. REDBACK ALPHA-5, another SASR patrol with an ETAC was to have been inserted there by a Mi-8 but it had been landed in the wrong place the first night. Last night they had been picked up and reinserted but again into the wrong place. This time they were some five kilometers west of where they were supposed to be. Knowing the desperate need to close the gap, the patrol had decided to hump the rest of the way during daylight rather than waiting for yet another nighttime insertion. They had arrived in place by mid afternoon and were now in position to cover all of the ground on the western slopes of Hill 3089 and Takur Ghar that Mitch’s team couldn’t see.
The two gorges were absolutely beautiful defiles. With the right forces in place, they could be locked up tighter than a drum. The first day there had been no movement through here. Yesterday they had seen a few individuals moving in both directions, today there had been a marked increase in activity, mostly from small groups from the east and south entering the valley. Mitch naturally assumed they were reinforcements called to join the fight. Being scattered the way they were made them poor targets for air strikes, particularly the precision munitions the Americans were employing.
The ETAC had advised him that the first day the Air Force had dropped over two hundred bombs, almost all the munitions had been precision ones like JDAMs and GBU-12s which were not particularly suited to attacking the enemy riflemen who were mostly in the open amongst the rocks. By the second day, almost three hundred bombs had been dropped with the number of precision bombs roughly equal to the airburst fused Mk-82s which were more suited to the task. Today, for whatever reason, the sorties seemed to be coming with mostly precision bombs again.
Last night they had settled in for another night and day of interdicting infiltration through the gorges. During the night, three AC-130 gunships, with their sophisticated sensors, had taken turns providing coverage. But again, they were a limited resource being called from one end of the valley to the other as targets of opportunity presented themselves. The patrol had been taking shifts and Mitch had just hit his fart-sack when the sound of the chopper came from across the gorge. That by itself wouldn’t have gotten him up but the crackle of gunfire and RPG bursts had him up and standing-to in less than thirty seconds.
The hoochie that Mitch shared with the patrol commander was just two yards away from their OP and connected with a shallow communication trench. Mitch crawled over and got under the scrim netting and pine boughs that covered and camouflaged the OP. He wiggled his way in next to the patrol commander who was scanning the opposing peak with the patrols’ AN/PVS-13B Thermal sight. The signaler was set up on the patrol commander’s other side, like Mitch, wearing night vision goggles.
Mitch had gotten there just in time to see a Chinook that had been hovering at the crest of Takur Ghar drop into the valley beyond. The fire fight continued off and on for a while but even with their gear, all they could make out were occasional muzzle flashes and some bodies moving around furtively. The fact that the opposing peak ran upwards away from them made viewing details on the peak difficult.
“What’s going on, boss?” asked Mitch.
“Dunno. We heard the chopper coming in so looked over that way just in time to see it do a hover with its ass end on the edge of the crest. Then a shit load of gunfire opened up on it and I’m pretty sure an RPG or two exploded against its side. You saw the rest yourself. Did you get any heads up during your shift that there would be anyone coming in up there?”
“No, boss,” replied Mitch.
The patrol commander turned to the signaler, “Chook. Get a contact report down to 0. Tell him we think there’s a TIC up there and ask them if they have any intel of any planned activity there.”
“You got it boss.” Chook keyed the press-to-talk switch on his throat mic and said, “REDBACK 0 this is REDBACK ALPHA-2, Contact, Wait Out.” Chook took a few minutes to scribble some coordinates and data on his field message pad and then again keyed the mic, “REDBACK 0 this is REDBACK ALPHA-2, Contact twenty to thirty infantry engaging CH-47 attempting insertion at top of peak at Grid Reference 199893: unit unknown: activity commenced at 0412 hrs; CH-47 engaged by AK-47, PK and RPG fire from very close range sustaining estimated one or two RPG hits before disengaging and flying westerly into valley; one IR strobe active on crest, intermittent small arms fire continuing; REDBACK ALPHA-2 not, I say again not, compromised. Over.” Chook turned back to the patrol commander, “0 acknowledges, boss.”
Within ten minutes the gunfire had died out. Mitch was looking through the scope but even at its 10x power setting the activity was indistinct. “I see a few folks moving around up there but with the rocks and trees I can’t tell much as to what’s going on.”
“The IR strobe has gone out,” said Chook. “Do you want me to follow up with 0 to see if they’ve learned anything yet, Boss?”
“Naw. They’ll let us know when they’ve got something…. Mitch, you might as well get back to sleep.”
“Okay, Boss.” Mitch ceded his place at the scope, picked up his M4 and crawled back to the hoochie. He dug into his pack, pulled out an energy bar and finished it off before racking out. He had drifted into and out of sleep and had no idea how long he’d been down when the second chopper came. What the fuck’s goin’ on. He hustled back up to the OP.
“Look at that bastard. He’s going right into the same place.”
This time they watched a team exit across the rear ramp and fight their way across the crest while the helicopter quickly escaped.
They had hardly got their second contact report off when a Spectre laid down fire on the peak. There was no going back to bed for Mitch this time.
In the glimmering dawn they could see the Spectre stay on station. An unusual event as the Americans had never allowed Spectres to stay on station after dawn since Spirit 03 was shot down by an SA-7 in Iraq in 1991. They had just watched two missile launches—presumably SA-7—but still they could hear the Spectre circle overhead.
The Spectre did leave finally around 0600hrs. It was quite light by then. At 0610hrs, another chopper came in to land. This time there were disastrous results as they watched it take severe hits while on its final approach, crash landing the last ten or twenty meters. The Aussies watched as the crew and its occupants tumbled out to set up a defensive perimeter and fight off the enemy that was violently asserting its claim to prior possession of the peak.
Their third contact report finally elicited a response from 0 advising that they were watching a Ranger QRF from TF 11 that had been attempting to rescue one of their SEAL Teams.
For several hours they watched the ebb and flow of the firefight while concurrently below, enemy forces gathered in the valley on the eastern slope of Takur Ghar. By the time they started to ascend the draw on the southeastern slope, the priority for air support had fully shifted to their sector. Strafing runs and precision strikes were being called down on the peak by air controllers on the peak with the QRF while REDBACK ALPHA-2 and 5’s ETACs were given B-52 and B-1 bomber sorties to rain down on Takur Ghar’s southern and western slopes respectively.
“Boss. 0 reports that the QRF has landed a second chalk on the far side of the mountain that’s going to try to link up with the ones at the top,” said Chook.
The patrol commander nodded and thought that through. “Mitch. With all the crap on the west side of that hill, the QRF will probably be moving around to the east side. They may run into those bastards coming from down below and are going to need some cover fire. We can’t count on having air when we need it, so I want you to take the two PKs and a shit load of ammo over to the eastern knoll. You should get a better angle on anyone climbing up. I’ll stay here with Chook and the ETAC: you take everyone else with you. Any questions?”
“Nope.”
It took twenty minutes to gather up the guns and traverse the six hundred meters of broken rock and pine clusters, set up the guns in positions that gave good coverage of the opposing slope but concealment from all other areas. They bombed up with thousands of rounds in linked ammo belts.
Mitch first emplaced his gun, left a trooper with it to dig in, cam up and get ready while he went fifty meters further along the ridge to position the second gun and its crew. Before returning to his own gun, he took time to christen the ground so that the two pairs could quickly refer targets to each other.
Back at his gun, Mitch started scanning the slopes looking for movement. It wasn’t long before he could see a string of men slowly traversing the eastern ridge just below the opposite crest. It looked as if they were moving southward to hook in behind the QRF’s position.
Mitch keyed the mic on his MBITR, “ALPHA-2 this is ALPHA-21 I have movement on the east side just below the crest, Over.”
“ALPHA-2. Roger. That’s confirmed as the second half of the QRF, Over.”
“ALPHA-21. Roger Out.”
“ALPHA-22. Roger Out.” The second gun crew acknowledged the sighting.
Mitch could hear the chatter of rifle fire in the gorge below seeking out the QRF. The range was too long by far for AKs but that didn’t keep them from trying.
“ALPHA-21 this is 22, Reference TRIPLETS right four o’clock seventy mils, three men setting up a PK, Over.”
Mitch keyed his radio, “ALPHA-21 Wait, Out.” He sighted his binoculars at the cluster of three tall pines that he had christened TRIPLETS, counted off seventy mils along the reticle in his binoculars—an angle about the width of two fingers held out at arm’s length—and searched for the gun detachment. And there it was: about a kilometer out, and a good two hundred meters below but only about five hundred meters away from the QRF—well within the PK’s effective range.
Mitch set his binoculars aside and again keyed his mic. “ALPHA-22 this is 21. Engage, Over.”
“ALPHA-22. Roger. Out.
 

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CHAPTER 6 (Cont'd)

Twenty seconds later 22’s gun started firing ranging bursts just barely visible in the rock and snow. The green-tracered bursts quickly walked in on the Talibs below and then pummeled the position with plunging fire. The Talibs had only a few seconds to look confused while trying to find where the fire was coming from and seek an escape. They never made it. The decades-old Russian 7.62 mm rounds ALPHA-22 were using were effective enough, quickly ripping into them. Mitch could see one trying to drag himself away from the position but another three bursts from ALPHA-22 quickly found their mark.
Mitch took a minute to send back a contact report and then went back to scanning the other side of the gorge while beside him his machine gunner took a minute to unpack his SR-98 sniper rifle.
“You think you’re gonna be able to reach out and touch anyone with that thing, Ginger?” asked Mitch.
“Maybe down there in the pass, that’s just within max range. I might try a shot or two further out up the slope but that’ll be iffy,” replied the young trooper.
Mitch knew Trooper O’Shea was no slouch as a sniper but anything over eight hundred meters with the SR-98, especially up or downhill with the cross winds here was a challenge. Better off to lay down a whole lot of the PK’s bullets. On the other hand, a few shots with the suppressed rifle would be much less likely to reveal their position than the PKs which had flash, noise, tracers and some briefly visible smoke.
“I’ve been doing some shooting on the range with this new Schmidt & Bender,” said Ginger referring to the rifle’s telescopic sight, “and I’ve been getting consistent hits out to a thousand.”
Mitch raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t heard that before. The lad’s getting damn good. Ginger, so named for his flaming red hair, freckles and fair complexion was the youngest and smallest member of the patrol. A year younger and four inches shorter than Mitch, the lad was game for any challenge and certainly humped a pack as large as any in the patrol without ever complaining. The irony of the fact that Ginger was providing overwatch on the GINGER defile and blocking position had not been lost on the patrol. The blocking positions had all been named after wives of various members of CJTF Mountain and the patrol’s Ginger had to deal with a fair bit of ribbing.
They both returned to scanning the slope, Mitch with his binoculars and Ginger with his rifle scope. Ginger’s 3-12x50 power scope giving him a distinct advantage over Mitch’s 8x30 binoculars.
“Looks like the QRF elements are almost married up,” said Ginger. “Hold on….They’re taking fire from this end of the peak. Reference BOULDER, left 6:30 o’clock 10 mils bunker. You can see some muzzle flashes there.”
Mitch strained to see but was having trouble keeping the binoculars steady enough. “Range?” he asked.
Ginger lined up his rangefinder and lased the target. “1,675 meters.”
“That’s a long shot for the PK and if you overshoot you could end up amongst the Yanks.”
“I can walk it up the side of the slope from left to right and you can spot me with the scope.”
Ginger set the PK’s sight to its maximum range of 1,500 meters and checked the wind which at this point was light with a southerly following wind. Brief puffs of smoke from the enemy’s position indicated that the winds there were also southerly. He aimed at the ridge about twenty mils to the left of the bunker. Twenty mils at that range were equivalent to approximately thirty meters off the target. “Ready?”
Mitch had moved a bit and set up upwind of Ginger as best as he could so as not to be obscured by the smoke from the machine gun. “Ready.”
Ginger squeezed off a burst. Almost three seconds later the burst struck the side of the mountain. Mitch watched both the green tracer and the bullet strike. “Seven o’clock 15 mils.”
Ginger adjusted his aim point bringing the barrel slightly up and to the right and let off another burst. Again Mitch followed the rounds for the three seconds they took to cross the gorge and watched them strike the slope. “Nine o’clock 5 mils.”
The rounds were now impacting at the same height as the target and some five to ten meters to its left.
Ginger adjusted slightly right and let off another ranging burst.
“On target,” said Mitch and Ginger started letting off short bursts holding the trigger as long as it took him to mutter Son-of-a-bitch, then relaying the point of aim before firing another short burst.
Mitch watched the fall of shot. He couldn’t tell if the enemy bunker had ceased firing but he was sure that as the PK’s bullets crashed all around it the sphincter pucker factor for those inside had gone up to the point where their aim would be piss poor. He keyed his mic and called a contact report back to ALPHA-2.
As Ginger was reloading with a fresh belt, Mitch heard the chatter of 22’s PK and quickly searched the slope for their target. Gotcha. Mitch analyzed their dress and equipment and again keyed his mic. “ALPHA-2 this is 21. 22 has contact at grid reference 201883, ten Taliban in open, 22 is engaging with PK, Over.”
“ALPHA-2. Roger, Out.”
As Mitch watched 22’s fire rake the Taliban position he caught movement in the distance. Training Ginger’s rifle scope on the area he could just make out three pickup trucks pulling off a track about two and one half kilometers to the northeast: well out of range of their machine guns.
“ALPHA-2 this is 21. Contact. Grid reference 212884, three pickup trucks dismounting twenty five ACM.”
“ALPHA-2. Wait, Out.” In his mind Mitch could see the patrol commander and the ETAC searching out the target. “ALPHA-2. we don’t have contact on your target from here but FORTUNE has just finished up a mission with REDBACK ALPHA-5 on the west slope. They’re calling for another sortie on your grid. Stand by to update location and provide BDA, Over.”
“21. Roger. Out.”
Stand-by ended up meaning fifteen minutes by which time the QRF had consolidated on the peak. Ginger was able to stop suppressing the bunker and get back to watching the gorge.
“ALPHA-21 this is 2. FORTUNE has VIPER-22 on station. Two F-18s with guns and 500 pound airburst. Has target profile changed? Over.”
“21. Target location unchanged. There are now four pickups and thirty ACM. Be aware MANPADs and light triple A have been observed in the area. Over.”
“2. Roger. Be advised VIPER-22 will make a pass to acquire target and then attack south to north. Confirm you can clear VIPER hot. Over.”
“21. Roger. I confirm I can clear VIPER hot. Confirm FORTUNE has briefed VIPER on all friendlies. Over”
“2. Roger. I confirm. Out”
Mitch pulled himself out of the hide and moved to a position from which he would be able to observe VIPER’s attack run. Two minutes later two F-18s, popping anti-missile decoy flares, overflew the area arcing in from the north and exiting west and then turning south.
“21 this is 2. VIPER confirms contact on your target and is commencing bomb run. Over.”
“21. Roger. Wait,” Mitch scanned for the jets in the sky and found them as they were turning north to start their attack run. “21 Contact VIPER.” Mitch carefully watched the F-18s line of attack to confirm that the run-in was directed at the target. As soon as he felt confident that they were aligned on the target he transmitted, “21, VIPER cleared hot, Over.”
“2. VIPER cleared hot, Out.”
Mitch and Ginger watched the ACMs scatter as the F-18s, again popping flares, roared in to drop their five hundred pound bombs over the pickups. Mitch watched a mixture of air and surface bursts but lost all sight of the targets in the explosions.
By the time the jets had come around to commence their gun runs, the smoke and dust had cleared sufficiently to see the burning trucks. He again cleared the jets hot.
A smattering of small arms fire rose up from the slope of the mountain but neither ground-to-air missiles nor anti-aircraft artillery fire was observed.
“2 this is 21. Four pick up trucks burning nine bodies visible. Over.”
“2. Roger. Out.”
Ginger returned his attention to the PK, lifting the feed unit cover and fiddling with the links. “Funny how this thing loads from the right. Ours are all left feed.” Ginger slammed the over shut. “That air strike worked well considering our airy-fairy couldn’t even see the target.”
“Yeah,” said Mitch. “Guess he’s not a complete muppet.”
“Nah. That was all you man. You found the target and ran the jets on it.”
Mitch laughed and put his attention back to the mountain as he again scanned the slope “What can I say? FIGJAM,”—Fuck it, I’m good, just ask me.
“You got a nard-roll, Mitch? I left mine in my pack at the OP.”
“Hang on.” Mitch rolled onto his side and dug through a pouch on his assault pack and tossed Ginger a roll of toilet paper.
“Thanks mate. Can you hold the fort for a minute?”
“Yeah. Have a good one.”
Ginger pulled himself out of the hide and crawled a few meters away between the rocks on the crest.
A heavy rattle of small arms fire and grenade explosions broke out on the far end of the peak across the gorge.
“Do you need me back?”
“Not yet.”
Mitch used the sniper scope but only saw fleeting glimpses of bodies moving in the snow amongst the rock outcroppings. If anything it looked like the Yanks were fighting their way up the hill but that was a guess at best.
Ginger returned to the hide and placed the paper next to Mitch, picked up the binoculars and started scanning.
After a few minutes, the firing died down and then stopped entirely. Again individuals were moving about but more openly now. It looked like they had finished mopping up and were now just taking stock of the position.
“There’s some movement on the knoll, Mitch.”
“You mean up on the crest. That’s the Yanks. It looks like they’ve taken the position.”
“No, not them. I mean the knoll with the bunker that I engaged before: this side of the Yanks.”
Mitch looked but didn’t see anything but if Ginger said he saw it then that’s it. Mitch keyed his mic, “ALPHA-2 this is 21. Over.”
“ALPHA-2. Over.”
“21. It looks to me like the Yanks have cleared the peak and are moving fairly openly. We engaged a bunker at the near end of the crest at grid reference 197891 about forty-five minutes ago. There’s some movement there now. The way the Yanks are moving around I doubt they know that there’s anyone there. Can you get word to them? Over.”
“2. We’ll give it a go. Out.”
“Sonofabitch.” Mitch watched as the nearer knoll erupted in a blaze of gunfire and RPG launches all of which were targeting the helicopter and the Yanks on the crest. “Hit the knoll, Ginger. Watch your right of arc.” Mitch keyed his mic, “ALPHA-22 this is 21. There’s a group of ACM on a knoll at the south end of the peak engaging the Yanks. Watch our tracer. Over.”
“22. Tracer seen. Over.”
“21. Engage the knoll. Watch your right of arc. Over.”
“22. Roger. Out.”
Mitch doubted whether they were being effective at the range they were engaging, but hoped that at the very least they were spoiling someone’s aim. Just as important, he hoped the ASOC had Mitch’s machine guns plotted as friendlies so that any incoming close air would consider his guns as part of the solution and not the problem.
As his two guns continued to rake the knoll with bursts, Mitch could see an aircraft coming in from the north. The distinctive twin tail identified it as a US Navy F-18 running directly in a line that would take it over Takur Ghar’s peak, then the enemy knoll and then over their own position. At first he couldn’t believe it was actually attacking the knoll: why would it overfly friendlies only three hundred meters short of the target when there were empty valleys to east and west? It was with a sigh of relief when he saw the bomb release above the other mountain and then with a sick feeling in his stomach watched it explode on the saddle of the mountain around one hundred meters from the Yanks. The Danger Close distance of a five hundred pound bomb was five hundred meters. That meant that the enemy on the knoll was already within the minimum safe distance and the risk of danger from the burst accepted by the Yanks. They probably had not accepted the risk of a drop-short.
“Shit,” said Ginger. “There’s one airy-fairy that’s gonna get a good face-ripping tonight.”
“That was bloody close. Only good thing about that is most of the shrapnel would have blown away from the Yanks.” While bursts that exploded on contact with the ground threw splinters in all directions, the majority of those splinters flew forward in the direction of the projectile’s direction of travel in a butterfly-wing pattern because of the angle of impact and to a lesser extent the projectiles momentum.
The Number 2 aircraft wasn’t far behind the lead and had obviously been given some strongly worded direction by the air controller on the mountain because the next bomb struck squarely on the knoll. A third bomb came in nowhere near the knoll but over a ridge and onto the slope on the east side of the peak.
Mitch kept his eyes open but that was the end of strikes on the mountain top. The fire from the knoll had died down although not completely. The Americans now stayed more under cover and kept a careful watch to their south. From time-to-time as they saw ACM activity at the knoll, Ginger would rake the position.
As the day wore on both guns engaged a few targets of opportunity as small groups of individuals still tried to make their way up the southeast side of Takur Ghar—including one group of almost platoon strength. REDBACK ALPHA-5 continued to lay bomb runs on the western slope of the mountain.
Their own ETAC using high power optics picked out groups moving along the myriad of ratline trails to the east and south. These groups were moving toward the Shah-i-Kot, not away. The fight wasn’t over yet.
As night came, Mitch and his detachment and the two machine guns were drawn back to the position of the main OP in order to create a better defensive perimeter. They had shown their presence that day and the Spectres kept an eye on their position as much as they did the one on Takur Ghar.
In the early evening B-52s and B-1s were brought in to again clean out small concentrations of ACM a kilometer out from the mountain. By 2015hrs four Chinooks had returned and extracted all Rangers and SEALs from Takur Ghar.
On Hill 3089 REDBACK ALPHA-2 went back to watching the gorge and villages for targets of opportunity; waiting for the fight to move down the valley from the north towards them.
Across the gorge on Takur Ghar it was quiet for the first time that day.
 

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CHAPTER 7

HLZ2, Lower Shah-i-Kot Valley
Tuesday 5 Mar 2002 0620 hrs AFT

The uncovering of the six gun howitzer battery the day before had not been a total surprise for Sergeant Shirazi.
They had already uncovered maps and documents indicating that the AQ probably had around ten guns in this valley. These six pieces were located towards the bottom of the valley in dry stream beds spread from the northeast edge of the villages to just a kilometer out. Two others guns were uncovered on a mountain slope another two kilometers even further northeast. A final one or two that had fired from the GINGER pass had established the truth of those documents.
What had surprised him was the condition of the equipment that they had found. While the guns were sighted in a direct fire role towards the southern approach to the valley, the equipment indicated the presence of someone skilled in the use of artillery in the indirect role. There had been firing tables, plotting boards and accurate maps. The maps and plotting records indicated that a defensive fire plan with predesignated targets and firing data to those targets had been prepared. Guns had sights and data for reference objects recorded. Spade holes for some of the guns’ trails showed they had at some recent time been laid to fire in the indirect role across to the other side of the Whale. Ammunition was stacked in abundant supply.
The maps indicated minefields had been laid and that they were being covered by fire. The locations of observers and AQ defensive positions were also marked.
But for the obvious Soviet nature of the equipment and the languages in which the documents were made, this was typical of what he would have expect to find in any Canadian or American gun battery in a defensive role. This was not what one would expect to find within an illiterate peasant militia.
Sergeant Cyrus Shirazi had no problems understanding the documentation here. Shirazi's father had been a Colonel in the Iranian Shah's army until the revolution in 1979. The family fled to Canada eventually settling in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in the province of Quebec. The family had done well: his father a civil engineer and his mother running an import-export business. Over the years he had expanded his proficiency in Farsi and Arabic to include a working knowledge of Pashto and a healthy smattering of Russian.
Cyrus had joined as a reservist in the Fusiliers Mont-Royal while attending university in Montreal thus was following in his father's military footsteps. Eschewing a career as an officer, Cyrus had transferred to the regular force as an enlisted member and after basic training was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment in Quebec City. Here he saw service as a rifleman, a sniper in the battalion's reconnaissance platoon, a combat intelligence operator in the battalion’s operations/intelligence cells and, after promotion to the rank of sergeant, as a rifle section commander. In 1998 he was posted to JTF-2 at Dwyer Hill where he currently stood as number one on the merit list for promotion to Warrant Officer.
Shirazi stood at just a bit under six-feet tall and carried a hundred and eighty pounds of pure muscle in a solid compact mass. His voice was a bit higher than one would expect on first seeing him but it was clear and always reflected a confidence born from his own abilities.
He currently led a team of ten: his own four man brick of assaulters from JTF-2 and a six man patrol from the New Zealand Special Air Service. The Kiwis had come with their own commanders, a sergeant with a corporal as 2i/c. Shirazi was the senior of the two sergeants and had been given overall command of the team.
Everything that Shirazi had seen about Operation ANACONDA had smacked of ad hoc, cobbled together organizations. The troop now working for Richter had followed suit. Two JTF-2 bricks and a USAF ETAC worked together moving on the ridges of the Whale in the west while two Kiwi patrols covered the mountain slopes of the eastern side of the valley. Down here, working the floor of the lower valley Shirazi had to quickly build a mixed team. No easy feat considering the fact that he and his three assaulters had been on the initial lift in with the mountain troops while the Kiwis had been marking time back at Bagram.
Their troop headquarters was a similar blend. Major Richter had charge of the operation with two New Zealand intelligence officers and an Afghan interpreter for analysis, a New Zealand staff sergeant as troop sergeant major and some signalers who like the patrols, all came from TF K-Bar. In addition there was a Delta Captain as the troop’s XO and as their liaison back to TF 11’s AFO. He came with his own RTO, an ETAC and a TF Orange SIGINT specialist.
When ALPHA Company and the scouts of the 1st of the 87th had pulled out of the EVE blocking position the night of D Day, they had marched north to join up with the Airborne’s 2nd of the 187th. Dawn had left them far short of their objective. The Yanks had dropped all snivel gear, lickies, chewies, extra clothing and even rations out of their rucksacks. After still struggling; they dropped even more gear and several of their rucksacks too. They had carried on in daylight. Fortunately, enemy activity had been light and they had managed to link up with the 2nd of the 187th without casualties. With gear having been ditched, food and water had become scarce for the mountain troops.
Shirazi’s team had spent the remainder of that day sniping at targets of opportunity in the valley. Several Patricia snipers had arrived the same night as the 1st of the 187th had landed in the valley near their sister battalion and they had taken over the sniper work. Shirazi’s brick left the hills and moved down the slopes to HLZ 15 to await Richter’s arrival. To while away the hours while they waited, they did some more sniping.
Marrying up with the Kiwis had been pretty simple once they had sorted out the differences in their respective Rules of Engagement. At first they couldn’t even reveal their ROEs to each other because of security restrictions. The lawyers had eventually gotten off their collective asses and gotten the job done.
Sergeant Blair Dunford and his 2i/c Corporal Anaru Henare —a thirty-five year-old Maori from the Nga Puhi iwi—had both struck Shirazi as competent and efficient. He had originally thought of creating three three-man teams, his assaulters led by Shirazi’s 2i/c Master Corporal Chris Boyle and two teams of Kiwis led by Dunford and Henare respectively. It became quickly clear to him, however, that it would be better if they stayed with their regular organizations and that he would leave it to Dunford to manage all six of the people of his patrol, dividing them when necessary, while Shirazi led the whole team as well as his own brick turning leadership of it over to Boyle if and when necessary.
That had worked well over the last day and two nights. The Kiwis were at first surprised that the two other assaulters in the Canadian’s brick were corporals but had come to understand that a Canadian master corporal and a Kiwi corporal were generally equivalent as junior leaders while Canadian corporals were more like the Kiwis’ senior privates. Shirazi for his part had come to understand that the Kiwis, like his troops, had all had mountaineering training and were experts in special reconnaissance. Their endurance exceeded that of the Canadians, who were no slouches by any means. The Canadians, on the other hand, were better at direct action tasks such as assaulting buildings. In general they had developed an easy rhythm where Dunford’s team would infiltrate a target area, secure its perimeter, observe and report activities and then cover the Canadians who would conduct the assault.
In a few cases the job had been easy. The Americans had already seized and cleared several significant compounds, including what was believed to have been an AQ leadership compound located within a kilometer just west of HLZ 1. While there clearly were dozens of AQ compounds in the valley, this one seemed to be universally called the AQ compound by everyone. In fact this compound had been gone through several times by US troops but had never been fully explored for intelligence. It was here that Shirazi had seized and reviewed documents that identified the artillery positions in the valley.
There had been a string of several more compounds strung out over a kilometer and a half running southwest of the AQ compound to the village of Shir Khan Kheyl. The village remained firmly under enemy control. One by one they had captured and searched several of the compounds and turned any data found over to the Kiwi IntOs. It became clear that a large portion of the AQ presence here was Uzbek and the call went out to have several Northern Alliance Uzbeks made available by TF 11 to assist with rudimentary initial translation and interpretation.
There had been an overriding intelligence question that everyone wanted an answer to. Why is the enemy fighting so hard here? The most logical answer to that was that there were high value targets in the valley. Bin Laden’s name was frequently bandied about but to this point there had been no evidence whatsoever that he had been present in the Shah-i-Kot since the Americans had come to the country. His presence had been confirmed at Tora Bora but since then all trace of him had been lost. There were two logical directions he could have gone: east to Pakistan or south to the Shah-i-Kot.
The more logical choices for HVTs or leadership in the Shah-i-Kot were: Saif Rahman Mansour, the local Taliban commander; Jalalluddin Haqqani another Pashtun warlord from Paktia who had operated from Pakistan for some time and was quite friendly with foreign jihadiis; and, because of the mounting evidence of a strong Uzbek presence, Tohir Abdouhalilovitch Yuldeshev, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s surviving leader.
Moreover, if they had initially fought to defend one or more HVTs, then surely they would have been spirited away by now, especially with the southern end of the valley open. No. There had to be more to this than just an HVT.
Last night they had found a partial answer. They had penetrated into a likely compound on the northeastern edge of the village of Shir Khan Kheyl and had discovered what could best be described as a supply warehouse. Primarily it was filled with hundreds of small arms and some remaining stocks of ammunition but, once again, it was the paperwork found there that held the most interest for them. In short, these were stocktaking records of weapons and ammunition: vast—exceedingly vast—stores of weapons and ammunition. This valley had been a major AQ training area but the stocks of arms here exceeded even what was needed for that purpose.
Shirazi had made notes of the most pertinent points and then sent Dunford and his patrol back to turn the raw data over to their intelligence cell. Meanwhile he and his brick made the hike east towards DIANE to find the TAC of the 1st of the 187th to discuss the issue with their CO.
Once they got there it turned out others had also been wondering what it was about this valley, and especially Takur Ghar that made the enemy fight so hard, so uncharacteristically hard. Notwithstanding the aerial bombardment on the slopes of the mountain, the enemy continued to come out time and time again to fight like the devil.
Shirazi’s information fit. If there was a massive ammunition dump on the mountain, that would be worth fighting for. The 1st of the 187th would work on it. The trick was how to find the needle in a mountain of a haystack.
Shirazi withdrew his brick from DIANE. They would make their way once again across the valley skirting south of the AQ compound to reconnect with Dunford’s patrol. The compound was by now firmly in Americans hands. The recent reinforcements that had come in had brought in mortars which were now brigaded in a baseplate position within the compound. While the security that the Americans’ presence offered was welcome, the position was now also a magnet for enemy counter-mortar fire. Accordingly, Richter had set up his TAC at a previously cleared compound a few hundred meters further south west. This is where they would reconnect with Dunford’s people.
 

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CHAPTER 7 (Cont'd)

Shirazi checked his location on his map. He had rarely needed his GPS here. They were now at HLZ2 and Shirazi set the course south of the AQ compound, making use of the myriad of creek beds and small wadis to stay as hidden as possible. Dawn was breaking in the valley. Behind them explosions could be heard on the mountains: smoke billowed across the peaks and into the draws. The sounds of furious firefights were erupting along the eastern mountain slopes while mortars were also hammering the Americans’ positions. Just to the brick’s front the American mortars were replying with the familiar whumps of their 81mm and 120mm tubes sending rounds over the brick’s heads.
To their west was a different sight. The villages were quiet although occasionally mortars could be heard firing from the Whale.
Twenty minutes later they had passed the AQ compound and arrived at the front of their new base camp.
A familiar figure in Canadian CADPAT greeted them at the gate.
“They sound like they’re pissed off,” said Richter pointing at the mountain to their southeast. “Good job on those guns and that supply dump info.”
“The Yanks at DIANE had already figured out there’s something important up there. We just gave them a bit more information on what it could be. Now their job is to figure out where it is and how to get at it.”
Richter smiled and looked up, his attention drawn to the shift in engine sound as an F-18 rolled in to start an attack run heading toward the slopes overlooking EVE. They stood and watched the bomb burst among the rocks—first a reddish ball on the hillside surrounded by hundreds of small puffs of gray where splinters hit the crumbling scree and soil. Within a second the ball changed color to a gray mushroom cloud that grew taller and drifted laterally along the slope with the wind. Ten seconds later the crump of the burst reached them.
The day had begun. Soon the Apaches would be roaming the valley again to pick off targets one by one.
“Come on in. I’ve got a mission to discuss with you,” said Richter. “Dunford’s bunch is here already.”
“How long before we go out? Do I have time to get my guys to get their heads down?”
“Yeah. You’ll have all day to plan it out. You won’t head out until after dark. We’ve brought up supplies and ammo for you as well.”
“Haven’t really used up any ammo but food and water would be good,” Shirazi turned to his 2i/c. “Chris!”
“Boss?” asked Boyle.
“Get the guys inside. There’s food and water and ammo if anyone needs any. Oh yeah and get fresh batteries for everything all around. Let the guys get some breakfast and then bed them down.”
“You got it boss.”
“And tell Sergeant Dunford to join the Major and me.”
“Right, boss.”
The gate they were at on the south side of the compound was made of ancient double wooden doors in total about eight feet wide. It was the only entry through the compound’s ten-foot high and two-foot thick adobe wall. In this region the walls were made of the abundant stones that could easily be hand-carried and then laid down and cemented by mud which was sometimes mixed with straw. The resultant structure was extremely strong and quite resistant to most types of small arms fire. This particular compound’s outside walls were approximately thirty meters square and had three interior buildings attached to them. A small square single-storey, single room flanked the left side of the gate while a similar two-storey tower-like one flanked the right. On the far side from of the compound stood a wall-high building running the whole length of the back wall with another two-storey tower on the northeast corner. A lean-to stable presently sheltering two six-wheeled Gator ATVs extended along the wall between the left front building and the main one at the rear. A more permanent wooden shed connected the two towers on the right hand side. Only four small windows faced into the compound. Atypically, two outward facing windows were on the second storey of each of the towers. This was Shirazi’s first visit back to the compound since it had been set up as the troop’s command post.
“Quarters are to the right, the CP is on the far side,” said Richter as he continued straight through and headed for the lone doorway in the far building. Shirazi followed along as the rest of the brick peeled off to the right. Shirazi didn’t notice any sentries up although he knew that there would be at least two with machine guns posted under cover on the towers’ roofs. On the roof of the command post he did notice two X-winged satellite aerials, a single SINCGARS aerial and something that undoubtedly belonged to the SIGINT guy.
Because it was basically made with the local mud, the walls and buildings of the compound had the same monotonous shade of camel brown that permeated the valley. The color gave no indication that there were any nutrients in the soil that would grow anything, yet the villages, which were clustered around several stream beds, were at the heart of a network of terraced and irrigated fields. The fields at this time of year, like the wadis and hillocks, were devoid of any vegetation except dry scruffy tuffs of grass and weeds. Beyond the fields and the lower valley the slopes were covered, to varying densities, with pines, cedars, junipers and some form of evergreen oaks. On the higher slopes the plants were fairly scruffy but down here along the stream beds passing amongst the villages were stands where the trees grew quite tall.
Inside the CP the gloom was cut in part by the faint morning light coming through the room’s two small windows and several kerosene lanterns hanging from the roof beams.
Shirazi remembered this compound well. It was the first one they had cleared after clearing the AQ compound. Like its eastern neighbor, it was also an insurgent compound. Whatever furnishings the prior civilian occupants may have had there were long gone. Instead there were merely a few scruffy carpets on the floor and a number of sleeping areas where blanket bedrolls had been left behind together with cooking gear, a number of crew served weapons, numerous books and papers and a mass of personal effects.
The room was slightly more organized now although still austere. The bedrolls, refuse, and weapons had been removed. The carpets were still there and had been augmented by several groundsheets to make a working surface on the floor. On the back wall several maps had been pinned up. A makeshift table had been cobbled together and occupied the front wall under the two windows. On it were several radios tended by an American RTO sitting on an equally improvised bench. The insurgents’ camp stove sat on the ground towards the right with a bubbling pot of water.
“Coffee, Cyrus?” asked a figure squatting in the gloom beside the stove.
“Yes please, sir,” said Shirazi recognizing the voice of Tony, the liaison officer from TF 11’s AFO. He’d never been given his last name. It was either sir or Tony. Shirazi went over and was handed a steaming mug. A similar one was handed to the Major. Packs of creamer and sugar sat in a box beside the stove.
“You had a good day yesterday, Cyrus,” said Tony.
“I just told the boss here that the Rakkasans were already looking into trying to find out what’s up there when we got there. Our info just filled in the blanks for them. They’ve got the hard job now.”
“Intelligence is pretty certain now that this whole valley has been a gathering place for supplies for several decades. We’re pretty sure the dump your records identified and maybe others like it, is why we’re getting such heavy resistance here.”
Tony had nodded to another room behind him when he had said intelligence. Shirazi glanced that way quickly and noticed one of the two Kiwi IntOs sitting on a carpet surrounded by documents and studiously perusing a map.
Behind Shirazi the door opened and Sergeant Dunford strode in.
“Come on in Blair,” said Richter. “Grab a coffee if you want. We’re just about to get started.” Dunford made his way over to the stove and shoveled a spoonful of instant coffee into a mug he had pulled out of a pouch on his LBE vest.
“As I was saying, our best guess right now is that this valley has been a major training area and supply dump for al-Qaeda and the local Taliban. It’s been built up over decades,” continued Tony. “Probably back to the time of the Russians.”
“So what happens if we seize the dump?”
“We’ve got two trains of thought,” said Tony. “The first is based on the fact that bin Laden thinks we’re pussies and that given enough casualties we’ll pull our tails between our legs and go home like we did in Somalia. In that respect they’ll keep reinforcing and try to kick our collective asses. The second works on the presumption that, if we capture or destroy their main reason for being here, then they’ll put out their usual rearguard and run for sanctuary across the border like we thought they would do initially.”
“That’s a problem for 10th Mountain though,” said Richter as he took his coffee and moved over to the maps on the wall. “Our job is to continue to help TF 11’s AFO find HVTs. In that respect we may be pressed for time if these guys are going to bug-out.
“The 1st of the 87th is coming back in later today and they will try to seal off GINGER and HEATHER again. TF Dagger is continuing to try to get the Afghan’s into the fight so that they can capture the villages. What we’re going to continue to do is to probe where we can and see what we can shake out.”
Richter pointed to a composite of gridded topographic maps for the valley. “We’re right here. CHARLIE-12-ALPHA has been working their way along the northern end of the Whale ridgeline to get to this trench system right here just north of this Hill 2729 feature.” Richter handed Shirazi a set of air photographs marked with tactical symbols. “Some of the dispositions are air photo interpretation; other parts are Tom’s confirmatory information.”
Tom was Tom Lennie, a twenty nine year old sergeant from Red Deer, Alberta. As the senior leader of the two JTF-2 bricks working as a team on the Whale—the other was a master corporal—Tom had overall command of 12-ALPHA.
“Right here you can make out a series of caves and connecting trenches.”
Shirazi looked more closely at the photos which had been marked up with a red fine point Staedtler Lumocolor non-permanent marker. The tactical markings had all the hallmarks of a Soviet platoon strongpoint: three dug-in section positions with interconnecting communications trenches—two forward, one back—each with a mix of AKs, PKs and RPGs and finally, further north, a DShK position. What would ordinarily be the very small CP for the platoon commander was instead a more extensive position involving a stone sanger extending in front of a natural cave. An 82mm mortar position was marked as lying several hundred meters to the southwest.
“TF Gray Fox elements have gotten a good bit of SIGINT out of this location,” continued Richter. “At the very least we think they’re controlling at least a company sized group still holed up in and around Shir Khan Kheyl. It could possibly be even bigger than that.
“12-ALPHA went in close last night and figured it’s beyond their abilities to penetrate even if we degrade them with air. I want your team to go up there tonight with you taking command of everybody up there. Work out how you want to do this. We’ll get you air to take out the strongpoints. You’ll have to figure out the best way to do that so that they don’t slip away before you can get up there. Tom can give you advice on the best way in.
“Any questions?”
“Probably, sir. Let me talk to Tom first,” said Shirazi.
“What about a QRF?” asked Dunford.
“TF 11 will have one on standby with enough lift to get you out if and when you need it,” said Tony.
“Good. We’ll get back to you on that,” said Shirazi. “Come on Blair. Let’s go sit down with the boys before they sack out and have an initial cut at this.”
Shirazi picked up his ruck on the way out the door and he and Dunford crossed over to the troops’ billet.
“What do you think the chances are they’ll still be there tonight?” asked Dunford.
“I got no idea Blair. These guys haven’t shown any indication of leaving just yet, have they? But if the 1st of the 87th blocks the passes tonight they might think it’s necessary to redeploy to keep from being trapped. Either way the problem is we can’t get up there any earlier than after last light.”
 

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CHAPTER 8

HLZ3, Lower Shah-i-Kot Valley
Tuesday 5 Mar 2002 1630 hrs AFT

The last Chinook lifted off from the LZ. Its massive twin rotors beat the air but barely stirred up the remaining wet sticky snow which in this area had now mostly turned the soil into a red muck. Phil watched it as it pulled away. He watched the circling attack helicopters providing coverage with aerial fires. He watched, through rifts in the clouds, the high contrails of the close air support standing-off, waiting for the helicopters to clear the restricted airspace before resuming their bombing and strafing runs. At least the fog had pulled off.
He looked south to the area of the GINGER pass but couldn’t quite make it out from here. Nor could he see any signs of the air strikes that had been hammering it for the last hour or so. On the inbound flight he had listened in to the reports that hundreds of insurgents had been forming up by the eastern end of the gorge presumably to reinforce the valley. A-10s, F-18s and Apaches had been called in. More would come in once Phil’s helicopters had cleared the valley.
We’re back. We’ve been gone for three days but now we’re back. This time we’re not leaving.


When C Company and Phil’s TAC had returned to Bagram the night of the 2nd of March, he had held back from ranting and raving at the situation. They had gathered up their gear and the excess gear of the wounded and prepared for the extraction by three Chinooks. The last one had been late and had landed a distance away from the expected HLZ. The last chalk had been four men and the wounded XO and some twenty rucksacks which the already exhausted soldiers had to drag from the expected HLZ to the helicopter, two men per pack. It had taken the better part of an hour under the eyes of the enemy.
On his return, he had taken the first half hour to ensure his returning troops were immediately getting fed, rested and re-equipped. That done he headed to the base hospital to look into the condition of the twenty-five wounded—four seriously—that had been medevaced. The doctors estimated that at least half of the wounded would return to duty shortly. So far it looked like every wound was due to mortar fragments. The plates in their body armor had absorbed most of the damage.
Before first light he had been called into a planning conference attended by the commanders of CJTF Mountain, TF Rakkasan; the CO of the 1st of the 187th Infantry; and liaisons from TF Dagger, TF 11, TF Bowie; and TF K-Bar including Richter and Schäfer.
They were going back in and TF Rakkasan would have the task of clearing out the valley. They wouldn’t wait for the Afghan militia.
The 1st of the 187th which until now had been the reserve were tasked to go into the valley later the same day. They would go with one and one half of their own rifle companies, their own scout platoon, Phil’s B Company and a sniper team from the Canadians’ 3 PPCLI.
Phil’s A Company, or at least one half of it, was still walking north in the valley to meet up with the 2nd of the 187th. So far they had not had any casualties but the going was slow and the valley rife with enemy. The remainder of his battalion: the rest of A Company, the shot up C Company and his mortars, remained uncommitted for the rest of the day at Bagram to refit and regroup.
As the morning’s orders ended, Phil was corralled by the CO and XO of the 1st of the 187th to talk about the previous day’s fight Both of them had been with the Brigade Commander all day on the Khosa Chinah ridge west of Phil’s position.
They had sat on one side of the now empty conference tent next to the large scale model of the valley and its surrounding mountains, surrounded by wall maps with tactical overlays. The CO wanted to pick Phil’s brains about various issues respecting equipment loads—what to take or not take; where the enemy concentrations were; his battalion’s response to the encirclement; and how they had dealt with their casualties in the open while awaiting medevac. After twenty minutes, Phil was starting to fade when suddenly Kurt stood by his side.
“Excuse me for interrupting, gentlemen, but I need to speak to Colonel Sambrook about an urgent issue relating to one of my people with his battalion. Could you do without the Colonel for a little while?”
“I think we’re pretty much done here anyway, aren’t we Colonel? Will you excuse us?” asked Phil as he rose and together with Kurt walked out of the conference room. “What is it we need to talk about?” he asked.
“Nothing,” said Richter. “I just came back looking for you to see how you were doing and it looked to me like you needed rescuing.”
“Yeah. We were covering ground that we’d covered before or which they could have figured out for themselves but I think we’re all a bit on edge here. For most of us we haven’t had a fight like this on our hands for a while. Certainly not at the rank level which each of us hold now.” It had been ten years since the US Army had been involved in a conventional battle of any significance.
Kurt steered Phil to the mess tent to grab some coffee and pointed out a place to sit down at the opposite end away from where several staff officers from both the brigade and the divisional headquarters were conversing.
“Funny isn’t it? There never seem to be enough staff around to get the job done right, but no matter where you look, you’re up to your ass in staff weenies. What is it these guys do all day long?”
“Canadians have that problem too, eh?” chuckled Phil.
Kurt ignored the eh jibe, “Hell, Julius Caesar was probably tripping over useless tribunes when he was crossing the Rubicon.”
Kurt went over to the coffee urn and filled two cups. He asked absently “NATO standard?” and picked up several packets of sugar, sweeteners and powdered creamers.
“Thought you knew by now?” replied Phil.
“I have a limited supply of brain cells and synapses to work with. I have to be quite selective on what I reserve memory space for these days,” quipped Kurt.
“That’s your own fault for testing so much of the family beer.”
“One has to make sacrifices to maintain standards.”
They moved to the back of the mess tent and pulled up two facing chairs at one of the empty six foot folding tables that were arranged in two rows down the length of the dining room. Heating in this area was not a high priority. Even most of the accommodation tents were limited to small coal fired stoves. For Kurt the supply priority was right for a change. Ammunition, weapons and troops were coming rather than creature comforts for the rear area headquarters. He didn’t doubt that would change soon enough but for the moment the emphasis was on winning the fight even though the Americans were sure that the fight was pretty much won and that most of them would be going home soon.
“So what’s your battalion going to do? Any ideas?” asked Kurt.
“We’ll be going back in—probably tomorrow, maybe the next day. I think the problem is the boss doesn’t know where he’s going to use us yet. The idea is to have a firm base with one battalion and then leapfrog the other two down the valley. The aim is still to get the Afghans into the main fight. That was the idea in the first place and while Dagger’s ODAs are negotiating with Zia and other Afghans, there’s nothing firm yet. In the meantime he wants to get something going so he’s putting the 1st of the 187th in where the 2nd is now and then sweep them southward. The intel still sucks so I think he wants to see how things shake out before committing us.”
“I don’t have a problem with that. The problem is that the south is still open for infiltration and exfiltration. Right now these guys are putting up a fight and we’re letting them reinforce while we take a breather. It’ll make your job harder. On top of that any hour now the AQ are gonna reassess and then they’ll run for the border like we expected in the first place. I’ve seen the outer cordon. It’s pretty porous. We’re covering most but not all the exit routes with special operations forces picquets and some questionable Afghan militia. I just don’t think you can properly seal off scattered foot-based exfiltration through mountain passes with air power. It’s like trying to destroy an ant nest with a hammer blow. You’ll get some but not even close to all of them.”
“We tried Kurt. I didn’t want to leave in the first place and have talked to the boss about reinserting the battalion in the pass tonight. No go. He’s got a firm base now and he’s going to move from there in stages. Anyway, there’s no sense in arguing. We’re limited on choppers and the weather is still marginal for airlift. What did Dieter say during the coffee break? ‘So we're stood down in the middle of the battle because the planes can't fly? Bad weather in the mountains? Who would have expected that, eh?’ The kid may be a bigger cynic than you are but I got to admit he was right on. We’re in the mountains. It’s the end of the winter. What did we do? We put all of our eggs in the air basket which we all know doesn’t do so well in mountains or bad weather.”
Phil contemplated the coffee in his cup as he swirled it around. “What are your people up to now?” he asked.
Kurt pondered his answer for a minute. “Our picquets are staying in place as long as this operation runs but in addition to that TF 11 is looking for assistance with site exploitation as the conventional boys sweep the valley. This place is clearly turning out to be a much bigger and more active AQ facility than anyone anticipated when we started. They now figure that there have to be some top echelon folks here and a fair bit of intelligence and gear lying around that they want to get a better handle on. If they do get the Afghans on side to sweep the villages, there’s going to be a lot of good intel going missing.”
“Looting?”
“Probably. I doubt if it would be deliberate concealment.
“Anyway. K-Bar has agreed to add a few site exploitation teams to help search the ridges and compounds. I’ll need to take Shirazi’s team back.”
“That’s too bad,” said Phil. “His folks did some good work covering our backs at the gap at GINGER but at this point he’s gone up north with ALPHA and the scouts.”
“Their location is no big issue. We’ll probably be starting from around there anyway. Numbers are the issue. The 2nd of the 187th already have their scouts, three snipers from the Patricias and three of your special operations forces who’ve done yeoman service for them from day one. They could use Shirazi but don’t need him. There’s another team of three Patricias going out there as well. On the other hand I’m putting together three site exploitation teams and, counting Shirazi, I’ve got just about enough: half Kiwis and half our boys.”
“How are the New Zealanders?” asked Phil.
Kurt had noticed a flash of some skepticism in Phil’s eyes.
“They’re good lads, Phil. A lot like the Brit and Aussie SAS. They’ve got the same traditions and attitudes. You can’t blame those boys for their government’s anti-nuke posturing.”
“It’s not just their government. The majority of their people supported letting the ANZUS treaty lapse rather than allow our nuclear armed or powered warships into their harbors.”
“So their status changed to friend but not ally?” chuckled Kurt.
“What was our choice? We had to suspend the treaty,” said Phil.
“The trouble is that it affects how their boys here are thought of by your people. Don’t get me wrong, Phil. I get it. Your army hasn’t seen much of the Kiwis in the last fifteen years so there is a natural resistance to putting trust in someone that you don’t know. But think of it this way. Notwithstanding their government’s latent hippie ennui, they’ve sent you some forty of their best fighters. That’s a big step for them. Cut them some slack and make them feel welcome like you have us, the Brits and the Aussies.”
Phil hesitated for a long moment then said, “Maybe I can take care of some of that next year. I just got the word that I’m assigned to USSOCOM this summer.”
“That’s great. I know you and Diana liked Drum but Tampa will be great. I presume you’ll move into the beach house?”
“Yup. I haven’t spoken to Diana about it yet. With luck I can get a message to her later today. My plan would be for her to start getting things ready down there. She can see about having her mom look after the kids while she heads down to Redington Beach and opens the house up and plans the move. How about you? You’re due for a posting too aren’t you? Do you have orders yet?”
“No official message yet but I’ve gotten a heads-up that I’m going to the UK for an exchange posting with the SAS for a year. That and a back door rumor that there is a promotion in the works.”
“Outstanding.”
“That’s the rumor anyway. Shirazi’s going to be getting his crown too but he doesn’t know and I can’t tell him yet.”
“Congratulations to both of you,” Phil reached across the table and shook Kurt’s hand. “You’re going to love the UK.”
“Thanks but let’s not jinx anything here,” said Kurt with a smile. “Anyway, I better get back over to our CP and start putting this op together.”
 

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CHAPTER 8 (Cont'd)

Phil bent forward, grabbed the shoulder straps of the frame holding the large MOLLE rucksack, assault pack and waist pack. He gave the seventy pound load a heave up and settled it more comfortably into place over top of his Fighting Load Carrier and then stepped off. The weight of his M4 assault carbine, pistol, MBITR, full hydration system and the FLC with its pouches, grenades and magazines added another thirty pounds of gear. Phil considered himself lucky. He was carrying one of the lighter loads within the battalion. The muli mariani had been lucky, he thought. Roman legionaries typically carried only sixty pound loads, and that was on the march, not into battle.
Despite the load, his steps came easily. He had set a slow but steady rhythmic pace, stepping flat footed so as to reduce the strain on his legs. Within a few steps, his breathing had synchronized with his steps to help form a steady rhythm. Once off the LZ, the ground became rolling and Phil shortened his strides as he moved uphill, effectively lifting the uphill leg with his weight then falling forward upslope: on down slopes he kept his knees bent and extended his stride digging his heels into the scree. The key was to keep a constant rhythm and to keep moving.
The other members of the battalion’s TAC fell into line behind him. Ahead of him, one of his companies was already starting to struggle up the coarse talus slopes of the debris fields of Takur Ghar. Behind him his other two companies fanned out while his mortars remained in the area of the LZ to provide covering fire if and when they would need it.
He found it curious that his forces were outclassed by the enemy in two major respects. First the enemy had vastly superior ammunition supplies. While his troops had what they carried on their backs, the enemy seemed to have caches of all natures everywhere. Second was the issue of mobility. Notwithstanding the high mobility afforded by their helicopters to get them into the battle space, once they were on the ground his troops were heavily hamstrung by both the exorbitant loads they carried and the deterioration of their physical strength because of their lack of acclimatization to the altitude.
Their enemy on the other hand was acclimatized, moved with very light loads from cache to cache and had a large number of light trucks and SUVs scattered around the area.
He now had three full rifle companies. He had reinforced the shot-up C Company with the two platoons of A Company that had originally remained behind at Bagram. In addition he had been given C Company of the 4th of the 31st Infantry and B Company of the 1st of the 187th as well as additional mortars to add to his own. That part of his A Company that had remained behind in the valley had been re-assigned back to him as well. They were presently retracing their steps back down the valley.
To say that Phil was not happy, however, was an understatement.
The evening of the 3rd, the Airborne’s 1st of the 187th had landed at the north end of the valley. They had humped all night and day to clear a number of caves in a draw to the east of their HLZ at AMY. They had then hooked back to the south along the east side of the valley clearing the mountain slope as they went. They had then gone on to secure the CINDY and DIANE blocking positions with strong mutually supporting defenses overlooking the villages in the central part of the valley and thus secured HLZ 3 for Phil’s arrival.
While waiting for orders, late in the morning of the 4th, well after Kurt had left, Phil had heard rumors of a special operations forces disaster on the top of Takur Ghar. There had been nothing definite, only that there had been a major effort on to rescue a SEAL team on the mountain and that there had been multiple fatalities. The last word that they got was that the SEALs and QRF and their casualties had all been recovered and that the peak was abandoned. Accompanying that news was the intelligence that the enemy was still reinforcing the area: the valley in general and Takur Ghar specifically.
The battalion insertion had gone smoothly despite one platoon becoming disoriented and heading off into the valley for several hundred yards before being corralled back on track. They had also seized six abandoned howitzers, dug into stream beds.
Phil had been about to move his battalion off the HLZ when he received radio orders changing his mission. Rather than moving south to further clear the eastern slopes and closing the southern ratlines around GINGER and HEATHER, Phil was now told to climb Takur Ghar and clear it of the enemy. Someone had obviously decided that any further advance down the valley required control of the mountain.
Phil’s immediate estimate of the situation contained  several obvious factors: last light was only a few hours away—while the dark would provide a tactical benefit, it would greatly slow their rate of movement; it was already starting to snow adding to the substantial amounts already covering the slopes again impeding progress; the temperature was dropping well below freezing; they would have to climb a slope that rose six hundred meters over two kilometers at its gentlest point—an average one in three rise—but on the west the slope ran at one in two and on the north one in one point five. Conclusion: this was going to be a bitch.
During the radio orders, Phil hadn’t hesitated to express his displeasure with the map reading skills at Brigade headquarters. The 10th was in name a mountain division but Fort Drum sat at just under 200 meters above sea level and rarely approached 300. The vast majority of his boys had no experience with mountains and they certainly didn’t have any mountain climbing gear with them. Once again he had felt there was a lack of appreciation as to what could be accomplished in a given time on this rugged ground, especially with the equipment that they had to hump. Most importantly, it looked like people were losing sight of what the objective should be.
The original mission to re-establish GINGER and HEATHER had entailed the move of some three kilometers laterally along the slope.
A few nights previously, A Company had been barely able to cover five hundred meters of this ground in the hours from midnight to dawn. Phil had only a few hours of daylight left.
If they had stayed with the original mission, at the lower elevation they would have missed the worst part of the gathering bad weather and been able to keep to a more level march following the rugged eastern slopes’ contours. He was sure that by midnight they’d be able to close on EVE again and by morning they should be close enough to GINGER to cover that position by observation and fire. By midday or late afternoon they should be back to covering HEATHER as well. With the forces he had with him now, especially the mortars, he’d be able to hold off any enemy threat and moreover would be able to move up the slopes the following night to take the fight to the enemy.
In short he would have been able to meet his originally assigned objectives.
What he was looking at now was a hard climb that would exhaust the troops well before the night was out. Undoubtedly a significant number would go down with altitude sickness creating medical care and evacuation problems. At the very best they’d get maybe a third of the way to the top before they would have to stop and rest and take shelter from the incoming weather. The next day they would have to resume their climb during daylight and maybe, just maybe, with a bit of luck clear the peak sometime during the following night. With more luck and a cooperative enemy, they might be able to move down to cover GINGER the following day. They would have no coverage over HEATHER and so the southern ratlines would remain open unless the bosses magically found other troops to pass through while Phil’s boys were on their mountain adventure.
Objective. The first principle of war is to direct every operation toward a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective. Kurt said the Canadians call this selection and maintenance of the aim. While worded differently, the meaning was the same. Determine the decisive and attainable objective and then stay focused on it until it is achieved. Don’t get diverted on non-decisive diversions.
Getting a change of orders over the brigade command net had a distinct disadvantage. Phil couldn’t argue too much without sounding like a disloyal shirker to everyone on the net. More importantly, he didn’t have the opportunity to subtly discuss and point out the consequences of these orders in a face-to-face way with his commander where personalities and reason would play a part. When you want to tell someone their plan sucks, its best to look them right in the eye until they blink. No chance of that here.
Somewhere along the way with the stuff that had gone on at the top of the mountain with the SEALs, the peak had become something more tactically important than it really was. As far as blocking escape from the valley was concerned, it held some but no critical importance. In military terms, notwithstanding its height, it was only important ground, not key terrain. But in the end Phil had to say “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
Phil kept placing one foot in front of the other following the lead company. He looked to his right at the village of Marzak below and the trails leading south from it towards GINGER and HEATHER and then swung his eyes back up towards the ungodly, steep rocky peak ahead of him. What had been a light hail was now turning to sleet and he could noticeably feel the temperature fall.
Select and maintain the aim. Shit.
 

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CHAPTER 9

Hill 2729, The Whale, Shah-i-Kot
Wednesday 6 Mar 2002 0210 hrs AFT

To his relief, the cave was clearly still active.
Shirazi had just watched an individual come out, walk the ten paces to the position’s latrine and relieve himself. He could sympathize—every time he’d been on winter-warfare exercises he’d found himself waking up at least once in the middle of the night with a bladder demanding release. That would bring on an inner turmoil between the need to take care of a pressing need and the desire to stay wrapped up warm and cozy in the fart sack. Inevitably the bladder would win out and Shirazi would pull down the zipper of the bag letting the cold air envelope him. The trick here was to close the bag and quickly dash out of the tent without getting dressed. Get the job done and dive back into the bag before it could cool off. It was like ripping off a band aid. The moment you were back in the bag the warmth would again enfold you.
Ahead of him the insurgent suddenly looked up to the sky.


Planning the operation had been complicated by the fact that one half of the team he’d be leading was only available on the radio. On the plus side, that element was already in place and had eyes on the objective. Intelligence from a man on the ground was worth ten-fold that of any air photo.
There had been some concern that the radios wouldn’t hold up. 12-ALPHA had been on patrol for fifty-five hours and was working on its last batteries. The Americans had been surprised to find how quickly their batteries ran down in this cold weather. For Canadians, where several winter-warfare exercises each year were routine, this was nothing new. They were prepared for this eventuality but still, when one is humping a heavy pack to start with, every pound saved—and a battery was dense and heavy for its size—was welcome. One never wanted to come back carrying spare batteries. Coming back in on your last battery was the ideal.
ALPHA had been out longer than originally anticipated and as such they had to go on power conservation: switching off for an hour at a time and then checking in for messages. Unfortunately, the amount of back and forth chatter required to properly involve them in the planning process had put a heavy demand on what was left of their juice. They had spent the better part of the afternoon and early evening off-line.
The plan developed was relatively simple. The KISS principle was one Shirazi had always given more than lip service to. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Even with the best of night vision aids, operations in darkness were not easy and could easily go awry. The less moving parts there were, the fewer control measures that were needed, the less could go wrong.
Shirazi’s plan was simple: leave the teams in their constituent elements; assign each its own objective, beat the enemy down with a short and sharp suppressive fire plan and keep a reserve for contingencies.
Dunford and Shirazi studied the air photos in detail searching for anything that the original analysts may have missed. They confirmed their findings with Lennie, to the extent the batteries made possible. They had decided that there were five major objectives. The cave CP was the primary one; the three section sized strongpoints and the DShK were secondaries.
As much as possible they wanted to avoid the utter destruction of the primary as this would make it more difficult to exploit it for intelligence. Conversely, the secondaries they wanted destroyed as much as possible before the assault. The question was how early? If they destroyed the strongpoints during the day it might result in the CP being abandoned before the assault could go in, thereby losing the potential intelligence. On the other hand, if they delayed too long, the secondary positions might cause casualties to the American forces in the valley.
Lennie’s suggestion was that the DShK had to go as soon as possible. It was engaging helicopters that flew near the Whale. If the Apaches didn’t take it out on their own initiative, they should plan an air strike on it as soon as possible. Richter approved that recommendation and ALPHA and its ETAC were tasked to destroy the DShK as soon as they could get aircraft allocated.
The three section positions on the other hand were of minor concern to the friendlies below. Lennie had reported that he hadn’t seen them ever engage anything, as the American forces in the valley were well outside the range of the weapons known to be at those secondary positions. A hidden mortar position several hundred meters further along the ridge, however, had been taken on several times with air strikes, so far without success. Every time air strikes rolled in the mortar crews went into bunkers taking their tubes with them. Ten minutes after the strikes left, they were back in action. So far, SIGINT had not fixed any known position for the mortars’ observers, although none of the signals coming from the objective CP were what one could call fire direction orders.
They had agreed that other than the DShK, everything else would be hit as part of the fire plan covering the assault.
Timings were developed based on two limitations: the amount of time it would take to infiltrate Shirazi’s team after last light, and the amount of time required prior to first light to successfully assault the position, search and seize for intel and exfiltrate to a safe hide. While the Whale was steep, the approach march would be on much less difficult ground than that on the eastern side of the valley. Their estimate of the situation said that sufficient time was available with a generous safety margin.
On the other hand, air support had been a challenge.
The air force wanted to provide pre-programmed bomb strikes to take out the three section positions while Shirazi wanted a Spectre for two distinct phases: first to provide route surveillance and coverage while the team infiltrated to ALPHA’s base camp and second to provide the pre-assault fire support on the enemy positions on an on-call basis within a given time frame. On-call because the fires should go in immediately before the assault and the time that the assault would go in would depend on the ability of the assault force to get into their pre-assault positions. That time might vary depending on circumstances.
Shirazi simply didn’t trust that bomb strikes would provide either the necessary flexibility or the accuracy required. Since the entire operation would take place at night, Spectres offered the most reliable and flexible solution with their considerable dwell time and their various night optics driven weapon systems.
The air force had been reluctant to commit a Spectre to a relatively small operation on the Whale while three infantry battalions still clung to the slopes of the eastern mountains. Richter and Shirazi had argued that because of the expected deteriorating weather, the infantry wasn’t going to be doing too much at night and that the Spectres would probably just be used to harass infiltration routes, something they would probably be able to do even while they were supporting Shirazi’s op. CJTF Mountain and TF Blue were neutral in the debate: they knew that if they had an emergency, any on-station planes would be called away in priority to them anyway. No one said it out loud but the simple unspoken fact was that when push came to shove US forces would receive priority over coalition ones.
The problem was with what was still, even at this late stage of the operation, an ad hoc understaffed and disjointed Air Force planning and command and control system.
Too many decisions were being made by the senior staff of Combined Forces Land Component Command located at Camp Doha in Kuwait and Combined Forces Air Component Command at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. To make matters worse, the two respective commanders of these organizations weren’t too fond of each other. Further, TF 11’s headquarters was on Masirah Island, off the coast of Oman. To make matters even more fun, TF 11 was commanded by an Air Force general, who while vastly experienced as a pilot, and who had served much time with special operations, had no intimate experience in land-based special reconnaissance and direct action. Effectively several key decisions were being made by people hundreds to thousands of kilometers away coordinating by teleconference. These decisions effected three battalions of conventional troops, dozens of army helicopters and Air Force fighters and bombers, and several diverse groups of special operations personnel all operating on a piece of landlocked mountain terrain measuring six kilometers by eight kilometers. Times like this made Shirazi wonder why God had ever invented officers.
While Spectres were available from two bases—NAIL call signs flew in from Masirah while GRIMs came from K2 in Uzbekistan—the number of aircraft in the air over the target area at any one time was limited by the very constricted battle space. Airborne controllers’ deconfliction of the airspace sometimes resulted in one team’s critical support being ordered out of the area to make room for another’s critical support to come in. All too often the decision of which mission was more critical was made by air force people at thirty thousand feet rather than by army commanders on the ground.
By early afternoon the matter was resolved. They would get a Spectre for their pre-assault fire support and a best effort for route surveillance on their approach march. AFO was able to secure a promise for a CIA predator to assist with route surveillance if they lost their Spectre. Shirazi hit the rack by 1400 hrs.
The team had risen just before last light and had a hot supper. Dunford and Shirazi went to see the two Kiwi IntOs for an intelligence update before setting out.
ALPHA had taken out the DShK with bombs shortly after Shirazi had racked-out.
There had been reports that a large enemy force of two to three hundred individuals plus vehicles had been forming up in the GINGER gorge area. Starting around 1600 hrs, A-10s flying out of Jacobabad, Pakistan and F-18s from the USS John F Kennedy began a series of runs to hit the pass with rockets, bombs and guns. No ground controllers had eyes on the site but a Predator had been observing the target and reported massive casualties. Aussie SAS were tasked to conduct a patrol into the mouth of the gorge for a closer bomb damage assessment the next dawn.
The 1st of the 87th had landed in the valley without incident but shortly after were given a change of mission: rather than continuing south down the mountain slopes, they were now tasked to climb and capture Takur Ghar.
“Who’s closing off GINGER and HEATHER?” Shirazi asked Richter.
“TF 64 picquets and airplanes,” he replied suppressing his own unhappiness with the change in Phil’s plans. “Assuming that the SITREP on GINGER is accurate; they’re not doing a bad job of it right now.”
Dunford turned back to the IntO. “How’s the weather?”
“No worries,” he replied. “The weather is closing in, especially on the mountains, but we expect that it shouldn’t affect your air support on the Whale. If anything, it will get the enemy hunkering down a little more in their bivys and give you more room to maneuver. The temperature should drop to around minus seventeen Fahrenheit with periods of light rain or sleet.”
“I don’t know if I should be chuffed about that or not,” said Dunford. “Sounds like a miserable tramp. When will it clear?”
“It probably won’t lift for two days at least.”
Turning to Shirazi, “We may need to re-kit a bit for the weather and check with Tom to see if they need anything. They ought to be right knackered by the time we get out there.”
That’s a nice offer since his guys will have to haul a lot of that thought Shirazi as he nodded his assent.
In the end they’d agreed to change the plan slightly by taking one of the muffled Gators for the first two kilometers to carry gear. The only known enemy positions were two mortar base plates: one about a kilometer north of their selected route, the other the same distance south. The last kilometer had been shank’s mare with about a hundred and ten pound load per man.
Shirazi had given the planning and conduct of the approach march to Dunford. His team was much more experienced at covert infiltration and stalking. Dunford was also tasked as the 2i/c of the overall mission. In many ways the mission’s organization and procedures were more in the nature of a raid being conducted by a fighting patrol. The Kiwis’ and Canadians’ shared British military heritage had made matters easy as both countries patrolling tactics and terminology had a common basis.
Dunford’s SAS patrol was tasked as the security and support element of the operation. The troopers had come with one L7A2 7.62mm GPMG. The Canadians gave them a C6 which like the L7A2, was a 7.62mm GPMG based on the Belgium FN MAG 60-20. Both came with night vision sights. Augmenting the several M203 40mm grenade launchers attached to selected M4 carbines, the SAS troopers carried one M3 Carl Gustav Medium Anti-tank Weapon. The weapon was not intended to be used for anti-tank work however. Every man carried either one or two of the 84mm dual-purpose high explosive projectiles capable of either point or air-burst detonation. The expected targets were fortifications and troops.
 
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