American soldiers were desperately fighting hundreds of insurgents trying to overrun their outpost here in Paktika Province when US Army Spc. Timothy Robbins, a veteran of Iraq, noticed something surprising.
"They were actually bounding at us, almost like they'd read our field manuals," he says, referring to a complex maneuver in which units take turns advancing and providing covering fire. During the July attack – one of the largest Taliban assaults this year that left two US soldiers and at least 10 militants dead – insurgents also coordinated rocket and mortar fire with their advance.
For Robbins and other soldiers who've served in Iraq, the attack was a vivid lesson that while Iraq gave them valuable experience, in Afghanistan they are fighting a much different war. These are skilled fighters who know how to hide in rugged mountain terrain.
How many of the US troops now in Afghanistan have also fought in Iraq is a difficult number to pin down. According to a forthcoming RAND study sponsored by the Army, 68 percent of soldiers on active duty with the Army have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once already.
The same study says that the United States' military capacity is maxed out, meaning that any surge in Afghanistan will have to come from US soldiers now in Iraq.
Afghan insurgents: battle-hardened
Decades of fighting have created a core of seasoned Afghan fighters. In the 1980s, they battled the Soviet Army and for the next decade fought one another in a civil war. American soldiers say that extensive combat experience is apparent.
"Here it seems like it's a more professional enemy," says US Army Staff Sgt. Seth Kelley. "They're more bold in what they try to do."
During foot patrols here, he says, US soldiers have walked into several complex Taliban ambushes that grew into large firefights, whereas in Iraq insurgents tended to detonate a roadside bomb and disappear.
"The enemy fights in a very different way in Afghanistan. One of the characteristics of almost all of the enemies in Iraq was that they did not organize well in small unit operations and they were not very determined in small unit combat," says Frederick Kagan, director of the critical threats project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "With a few exceptions, you didn't tend to have a lot of long, protracted small unit engagements in Iraq, but that is exactly how the Afghans fight. They fight very bravely and they will fight until they're all killed sometimes."
As a mortar man, US Army Spc. Ricky Olivo has been impressed with the ability of militants here to target US forces with rocket and mortar fire. During his year-long tour in Iraq, he says that while insurgent mortar fire produced causalities, more often than not it was random and imprecise. Afghan fighters are more accurate. "Here when they shoot, they're shooting to try to get us," he says.
Although many militants in Afghanistan may be more tactically sound than their Iraqi counterparts, US forces say their skill level still doesn't match that of a well-trained Western army. For example, neither Iraqis nor Afghans are as accurate when it comes to firing a rifle. "They can't shoot," says US Army Sgt. Colin Nez-Orr flatly.
But in Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, militants here have the advantage of an unforgiving, mountainous terrain, and that complicates US troop movements.
"It's just a different ball game out here," says US Army Staff Sgt. Adam James, a veteran of two tours in Iraq. "In Iraq, you can go anywhere you want. But here you're limited by terrain."
For most of the Iraq war, soldiers relied heavily on Humvees and armored vehicles to patrol the country. With relatively complex road systems, soldiers were able effectively to travel by vehicle to nearly all their mission objectives.
In Afghanistan, much of the country remains undeveloped, and many parts of the mountainous countryside are impassable by vehicle, forcing soldiers to hike or fly by helicopter to their objectives. Navigating the mountain networks of Afghanistan makes it harder for US forces to hunt down insurgents.
Soldiers say their experience in Iraq means that they're also better at managing cultural differences. But some things are maddeningly familiar.
Staff Sergeant James says he let out a sigh as the sun began to crest the surrounding mountains and he worked to marshal Afghan forces for a joint patrol. His mission was half an hour behind schedule because they weren't ready despite advanced planning. The police also said they couldn't provide the previously agreed on number of forces for the patrol.
"You've just got to be patient," says James. "We went through the same thing in Iraq."