Capt. Floy Rodriguez, leader of a US Marine advisory team to the Afghan National Army (ANA), was listening to Johnny Cash at a forward operating base deep in the arid mountains of northeast Afghanistan when the group of about 30 insurgent fighters attacked last month with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns. The base, called Lumberyard, had been established in early May, as a foothold for Afghan and US troops pushing north into Kunar and Nuristan Provinces.
The attack, and the killing of a local informant whose information could have prevented it, typify the difficulties faced by US and Afghan forces as they push farther into this rugged corner of Afghanistan, often mentioned as a possible hiding place of top Al Qaeda figures. As coalition forces move into remote insurgent havens, but they have been unable to provide security locals say they need in order to help oust insurgents completely. Villagers who do help coalition forces suffer, or die, for it.
"Whoever shows up with guns on that day, [the villagers] are that guy's friend," says Rodriguez, who spent more than a month patrolling the area with Afghan soldiers and meeting with villagers both inside and outside Lumberyard. Those patrols were too short and too spread out to secure the valley, which remains full of "bad guys," he says.
The inability to provide security for villagers in these areas hampers the long-term effectiveness of operations, such as Mountain Thrust, a large-scale coalition offensive launched recently in southern Afghanistan following an upswing in insurgent activity there. Insurgents hold sway in parts of the countryside surrounding operating bases in the southern provinces.
In lieu of securing whole areas like those in the southern deserts or northeastern mountains, the US has set up bases like Lumberyard, from which they conduct patrols, meet with village elders, and constantly travel the roads in search of bombs. And while coalition soldiers are able to glean some intelligence from locals in their areas, many are hesitant to give up information for fear of retribution by insurgents.
Kunar Province remains one of the most dangerous regions in the country. One US soldier was killed June 13 in Kunar, and two US soldiers were killed three days later when the all-terrain vehicle they were driving hit a roadside bomb, according to Pentagon statements. On Sunday, another coalition soldier was fatally wounded.
Afghan commanders say they are fighting Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants who have safe zones in Pakistan and are able to cross easily into Kunar. They are also fighting followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a powerful warlord who has refused to join Afghanistan's nascent government. There are also locals who once gave up the gun when economic development seemed likely, but who are now picking up the fight again.
Some US officials say troop strength is enough in these areas but that more development will bring stability where soldiers cannot. Meanwhile, they continue to push north. Last week, four US soldiers were killed "while conducting security operations to interdict enemy movement through northern Nuristan," the province north of Kunar, according to a Pentagon statement.
Staff Sergeant Shawn Nedari, a National Guard adviser to the Afghan Army who grew up in Manhattan and whose parents are Afghan, fought and patrolled in the mountains of Kunar during a recent coalition push into the area. Villagers told him that they would be unable to provide information without security.
"The problem is, we don't stay there long enough to keep [the insurgents] out," he says. "We don't have enough bodies."
Brigadier General Zemari, who commands the brigade of the Afghan Army operating in Kunar, has been wounded 15 times in battle and knows how hard it can be to fight insurgents in the mountains without the help of locals.
"The problem is not knowing, not having exact intelligence reports and no indication of the enemy from the people," he says. "[Without intelligence], we cannot separate the enemy from the locals. So if we do something, we will bring damage to the locals, and the people will not get along with the army and will not be happy with the army."
Building schools, roads, and clinics is more important than putting more troops on the ground, Zemari says, a statement echoed by US officials.
"As the Afghan government builds the capacity to extend their reach, security will improve even more," coalition spokesman Paul Fitzpatrick wrote in an e-mail. "This is not about US troop levels in Kunar or anywhere else. The solution lies within the Afghan government and its people."
Development, meanwhile, is practically impossible without security from insurgents who target aid efforts – not to mention the rugged terrain that has hindered progress even in years of peace.