The convoy of Stryker armored personnel carriers takes eight hours to make the drive from Strongpoint DeMaiwand into the Garm Abak Pass. It’s a slow, rough ride over stony desert terrain into the mountains. The drive is broken up by several halts in place, sometimes for up to an hour.
It’s only when the Strykers reach the pass that the reason for the stuttering pace becomes clear.
“I think it was a big IED.”
Maj. Al Bangura is head of operations for the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment — the American unit paired with the Afghan National Army, or ANA, on this mission. His Stryker is one of three to hit an improvised explosive device on the way up. Most of those in Bangura’s vehicle were fortunate, but one had to be evacuated.
“Ferro, definitely, is going to be down for about a week. Serious, I think. He suffered injuries to his head and back.”
This mission is the first time in a year that U.S. or ANA forces have ventured into the Garm Abak Pass. In their absence, the Taliban have had the run of the place. They’ve kept some fighters in the area to make sure the locals grow poppy, which they then tax.
But that’s a side benefit. The real value of the pass is as a transit route — between Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan’s Kandahar and Helmand Provinces.
“It’s a staging area. Anywhere from 24 to 72 hours, they will stage their homemade explosives here and then continue their movement north or stage the poppy here and continue their movement south.”
The 1-36 is officially here to advise and assist the Afghan army. The ANA chose the mission and picked the targets.
“Garr, push off that hill.”
But U.S. troops are swarming all over Garm Abak Pass today. Around poppy fields. Into villages of mud and stone that would have looked familiar to the invading armies of Alexander the Great. Down into forbidding holes in the sand — and coming up with hidden arms.
Capt. Jordan Hembree commands Alpha Company with the 1-36 Infantry.
“We came across several caches of mines, IEDs, weapons, so very successful operation there with what we found.”
The firearms are of mixed quality. One is a bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle that could date back to the Afghans’ last war with the British, over 90 years ago. But there are also pressure plates and bags of aluminum powder.
The Strykers eventually pull out into the desert and hunker down for the night. The Taliban don’t, as Major Al Bangura notes when the mission resumes the next day.
“Alpha Company woke up this morning, did a quick reconnaissance of one of the suspected areas. They found four IEDs that were freshly emplaced.”
Getting out of Garm Abak Pass is every bit as slow and deliberate as going in. As for what happens next, Maj. Bangura says this should limit Taliban activity in the area for a while. But he admits they’re likely to adapt. And it’s unlikely this brief foray has won any hearts and minds for the government in Kabul.
“The people are not — they're indifferent at this point. You know, whoever is here is their friend. That’s just how it’s always been.”
The combined U.S. and ANA troops lack the resources to keep a constant presence in the pass now. Those resources will only shrink as the U.S. combat mission nears its end next year.
From Kandahar Province, Andrew Schneider, KUHF News.
Tomorrow, Andrew Schneider accompanies the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment on a mission to head off Taliban attacks on Afghanistan’s main highway, in Part 3 of Winding Down the War.