Afghanistan: Shok Therapy

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A pair of intrepid reporters has just published No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan. Veteran journalists Mitch Weiss, now at the AP — who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Toledo Blade in 2004 — and Kevin Maurer, who has traveled frequently with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, tell the tale of a Special Forces team caught in a 2008 ambush deep in the Shok Valley.

Trapped far from reinforcements deep in the mountains, they engaged in a seven-hour firefight that earned 10 of their number Silver Stars, the most collected in one battle since Vietnam. Battleland conducted this email chat with them earlier this week:

What is the most interesting thing you learned in your research and reporting for No Way Out?

MW: Just how difficult it was to train the Afghan commandos. While they were touted as an elite unit, many of the Afghans were illiterate. They had little or no basic math or life skills that we often take for granted. The Special Forces team not only had to train the Afghans in the intricacies of modern warfare in a short time, they also had to become makeshift elementary school teachers – showing the Afghans how to draw a circle or a square, before moving on to more complicated subjects.

Give Battleland readers a tight description of what No Way Out is about.

KM: The book is about a Special Forces mission into a remote valley in northeastern Afghanistan. A sanctuary for the deadly Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin – HIG – the team and the Afghan commandos were sent into the Shok Valley to capture the group’s local commander, Haji Ghafour. But as they scaled a steep mountain to reach his compound, they were ambushed. (Unknown to the team, they had interrupted a meeting between Ghafour and the group’s leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.)

Ken Blevins/StarNews

With an estimated 300 foreign fighters waiting on the mountains above them, some of the Special Forces soldiers were trapped on a small ledge during an eight-hour firefight. Several of the team members were wounded, but continued to fight. When the battle finally ended, ten soldiers had earned Silver Stars – the Army’s third highest award for combat valor.

MW: Before the mission, some team leaders had questioned commanders about the tactics, including scaling a mountain in daylight. But their concerns were brushed aside. So the battle serves as a cautionary tale: Be careful what you ask a soldier to do because they will die trying to accomplish their mission. This book is kind of a modern day “Charge of the Light Brigade” – by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

How exceptional is the tale told in your book?

KM: This is one of the most heroic battles we’ve ever covered. These men did some amazing things in the heat of battle. With bullets and RPGs raining down on him, the team’s only medic kept several guys alive on a tiny ledge. One of the team’s weapons sergeants climbed up a cliff and was the last one off as he held the enemy at bay, allowing the others to escape. One soldier, John Wayne Walding, who was born on the Fourth of July, literally used his bootlace to tie his severed lower leg to his thigh.

MW: One of the best stories is Michael Carter’s. A combat cameraman, his gear was destroyed early on and he was forced to help the medic and eventually help find an escape route. An amazing guy, especially when you take into account that he wasn’t a Special Forces soldier and arrived only a few days before the mission.

What fundamental misperception, if any, do you think Americans have about the Afghan war?

KM: That it is easy to rebuild a country that has been at war for decades. I had a Special Forces sergeant compare Afghanistan to being in biblical times with machine guns and cell phones. The funny part is he isn’t all wrong. There are no roads. The government in Kabul has almost no presence outside of the major cities.

There is no question the resources taken for Iraq slowed progress in Afghanistan, but the American public has to realize that unlike Iraq, there was very little to build on and everything from the Army and police to physical buildings must be built from the ground up. And the building must be done while fighting a determined insurgency with safe-haven in Pakistan.

What fundamental misperception, if any, do you think Americans have about the troops on our side waging that war?

MW: It takes a special person to be driven by duty and to be willing to fight like that. But while the big “red, white and blue” goals and platitudes try and explain a soldier’s motivation, it all really comes back to the bond between unit mates. There are few places where you can see that bond.

And it is not a bond forged in combat, but in the down times when things are boring or mundane. It is then that the soldiers find that common ground and build up the relationships that when every fighter in a valley is firing at them, they still get up to help a unit mate to safety.

Chuck Burton

What fundamental misperception, if any, do you think Americans have about the enemy?

KM: That they are not good fighters. That they are fanatics who are blinded by religion. That they will quit. The Taliban are fighting for their homes and the way they want to govern their country. Forget if you agree with them or not, but that is the truth. And if we were fighting for our country, we wouldn’t go away or quit either.

MW: And don’t underestimate the enemy. They are crafty. Units have had to constantly switch tactics and procedures to stay ahead of the Taliban. But don’t mistake respect for the enemy with agreement. The HIG, who ambushed the team in No Way Out, are terrorists and mercenaries.

Can the U.S. and its allies succeed in Afghanistan?

KM: Good question. I don’t think anyone knows the answer. Over time and with all of the U.S. and allied resources focused on a set of common goals, I’d argue yes. But, with the election season and such war fatigue, I am not sure.

MW: Ultimately, it comes down to how “success” in Afghanistan is defined. The objective of the mission has changed so much, I think no matter how the war ends the spin will try and make it a success. And I think in some ways it will depend on who you ask.

What is the biggest lesson you hope No Way Out will impart to those who read it?

KM: Soldiers fight not for the flag but for the guys to the left and right of them. And if you ask a solider, sailor, airman or Marine to do something, they will die trying to do the mission.

MW: Even if they know the mission is flawed.