Nightmare in the Shok Valley

Article excerpt

THERE are no roads leading into the Shok Valley. The village, which stands sentinel over the valley, is home to one of the fiercest insurgent forces in Afghanistan--the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin, or HIG.

On April 6, 2008, a daring raid into the stronghold by Afghan commandos and their special forces counterparts, tested the mettle of the Afghan forces and further forged the bond between them and their SF brothers.

In December 2008, Lt. Gen. John F. Mullholland, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, pinned Silver Stars on the chests of 10 of the men involved in the raid and the ensuing six-and-a-half-hour firefight that saw more than 150 insurgents killed. It was the largest ceremony of its kind since the Vietnam era. But for the members of Team 3336, of the 3rd Special Forces Group, it was never about the medals.

When you ask them to use one word to describe April 6, their words pop, much like the gunfire that rained down on them.

"A nightmare."

"Baptism by fire," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Plants, "it was my first firefight."

"Cliffhanger."

More words followed as the team went back in their minds to that day.

The team was assigned to take out high-value targets within the HIG. The insurgent group was entrenched in the valley and was guarded by a number of highly trained foreign fighters. The sheer number of weapons and amount of ammo used by the insurgents led the team to conclude they had been stockpiling the weaponry within the fortress-like village since the Soviet occupation of the country during the 1980s.

A group of Afghan commandos accompanied the team that day. "We have such a big rapport with the commandos we've trained," said Staff Sgt. Luis Morales, the team's intelligence sergeant. "They have such a loyalty to us. They try as hard to protect us as we try to protect ourselves."

"We eat, sleep and train with these commandos," said Capt. Kyle Walton, the detachment commander. "We die with them, too. These guys are close friends to us. At the outset of the attack, I lost my interpreter, and we were as close as anyone."

The interpreters hold a special place within the team. "They are just like a member of the team," said Morales. "One of our interpreters has seen as much combat as any of us. He has six years of combat experience. He's been with six SF teams and been in hundreds of firefights--but he doesn't get the six-month break.

"With our tactical knowledge and (the commandos') knowledge of the local populace, terrain and customs, we can truly become a force multiplier," said Walton. "That's what SF does. We bring things to the fight that they don't have, such as close air support and weaponry. But in the end, it's an Afghan fight, and we are part of it."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The commandos who accompanied the SF team on the mission have developed something of a reputation throughout Afghanistan. "The Taliban calls them the wolves. When they hear the wolves are coming, they know they are in trouble. The commandos are pretty feared. Everywhere we go, they identify us with the commandos, and the fact that this group of insurgents was prepared to sit and fight us to the death was indicative of an enemy force you don't see every day," said Morales.

"Eighty percent of the guys on the ground that day had been in firefights before," said Walton. "We feel fairly comfortable in a firefight anytime."

But that day was different. The team was going into the unknown. The Soviets, during their occupation of the country, never made it into the Shok Valley. To date, no coalition troops have been there. This was a first. To get into the valley, the team had to fly.

"I feel comfortable with my feet on a ground," said Morales. "I don't feel comfortable in the helicopter--we can't control what happens there. But on the ground, we have a plan, we go in and do it, and the rest falls into place. …