LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan (February 6, 2012) — The enemy sniper moved silently in the mountain darkness, snake-like, as he stalked the American and Afghan National Army soldiers, waiting for his opportunity to strike.
His prey: a platoon on a mission dubbed Aluminum Python, a three-day operation to clear insurgents from the Mayl Valley, a center of poppy production located in the mountainous Alisheng district. The platoon’s target objective: to kill or capture two Taliban operatives believed to be hiding in Pata Tili, a village suspected of providing safe haven for the Taliban.
The sniper had been trailing the soldiers, many of them with the Oklahoma National Guard’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s Focused Targeting Force, after they landed by helicopter a few hours earlier on Jan. 28, just before midnight, on a snow-capped plateau a few kilometers east of the village. He was armed with a grenade and an Armscor semi-automatic 22-caliber rifle with suppressor, a weapon known for its quiet stealth.
At about 2:30 a.m., as the assault platoon headed northwest toward the village, it received word that someone was following them. U.S. Army 1st Lt. Craig McCullah, platoon leader of 1st Platoon, Company A, 45th IBCT’s FTF, and a native of Topeka, Kan., quickly assembled an ambush team of four Americans and five ANA that broke off from the main unit to hunt down the insurgent. The remainder of the element held fast and took up security positions.
Using thermal imaging technology, McCullah’s team was led to the man as he lurked nearby. Crossing a ravine to reach higher ground, they spotted his ghostly figure with their night vision goggles about 150 meters away.
Tension mounted as ANA 2nd Lt. Nangyali, commander of Reconnaissance Company, 4th Kandak, and his soldiers crept closer to their target. Once they were in hearing range, Nangyali shouted out three surrender warnings. They were ignored. As the stalker attempted to escape, he was shot and killed.
“We gave him a tactical call-out, but he didn’t want to play ball,” said McCullah.
A cursory post-battle investigation revealed the true intent of the interloper. On the sniper’s weapon were markings identifying his extremist beliefs.
“He was Taliban, on the watch list of the ANA” said Nangyali. “He could have caused us a lot of damage.”
After the sniper threat was eliminated, 1st Platoon regrouped and continued their mission. Still under the cover of darkness, they approached Pata Tili to apprehend their high value targets. One is a known bomb maker, financier and facilitator who is suspected in attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces. The other supports insurgents traveling from Pakistan to Kabul. But when they got there, they were both gone. The locals said one of them had already fled to Pakistan weeks ago, while the other had recently left for a village nearby.
While some suspected an operational security leak or locals who simply had their ears to the ground, Lt. Col. Matthew Harsha, 1-179’s battalion commander from Oklahoma City, offered a different reason.
“Because of everything we’ve been doing around here the last couple of months, they all split,” Harsha said. “They’re running scared.”
Over those last couple of months, soldiers from Combat Outpost Najil, which lies on the western edge of the Mayl Valley, have made repeated incursions into the area, meeting Taliban resistance each time. These altercations were particularly violent in the fall, when Taliban fighters hid in cornfields along transit routes and popped up like gophers to fire at the Afghans and Americans.
“What’s weird about this area as opposed to the rest of [Regional Command] East is that they’re not massing to attack,” Harsha said. “They’re just protecting the backs of the valleys. They’re protecting the poppy.”
The plan for Aluminum Python was to drop soldiers in during wintertime at the eastern end of the valley, which runs in a fold between two mountain chains, and traps any insurgents who tried to escape.
During the next two days, five platoons fanned out over the valley, penetrating deeper into the area than American or Afghan forces have ever gone before. Led by the ANA and members of Community Based Security Solutions, a neighborhood policing program, they searched villages for illegal weapons and any insurgents who might be hiding. They didn’t find any, but that shouldn’t be considered a failure, said Oklahoma City native Capt. Jason Taylor, commander of Company A and the operational commander for Aluminum Python.
“In the larger context, it was a sign of success,” he said.
Taylor explained that during his nine months commanding Combat Outpost Najil, he and his ANA partners have met with national and provincial leaders to establish an Afghan National Police presence in the Mayl Valley and bring community based policing into the mix.
As a result, the police are expanding their presence and influence, and the Taliban in Pakistan don’t like that because they cannot move as freely through the area as they used to. This has changed the dynamics of the security situation in the region, he said, making it much safer.
“Seeing the CBS2, the ANP and the sub-governor, and the ANA out there working together, getting rid of opium, securing the routes, and stopping the killing, is pretty satisfying,” Taylor said.