Magazine article Nieman Reports

Fragile Alliances and Tragedy

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Fragile Alliances and Tragedy

Article excerpt

Lt. Erik Malmstrom and Lt. Matthew Ferrara (left and right in photo below) meet with the village elders of the town of Aranas, an ancient and isolated town in eastern Afghanistan's Waigul Valley, a major point for extremists transiting to join the jihad from Pakistan. Malmstrom was on the final days of a 16-month deployment, and Ferrara had arrived the previous day to replace him. A year earlier, Malmstrom had set up a small outpost above the village with a platoon of 30 soldiers. Initial reactions to his presence were hostile. Several months after the outpost was built, Malmstrom's unit was ambushed. Three of his men were killed and another three were wounded, 20 percent of his total strength. Many combat units lose their fighting effectiveness after the loss of so many men, but Malmstrom was determined to change the valley. Over the next nine months, he formed an alliance with the village elders, built a school, brought electricity to the town for the first time via a small hydroelectric dam, and began constructing a road connection to the nearest regional hub. Although there were a few scattered firefights, Malmstrom managed to win the loyalty of the town elders and served out the rest of his deployment in relative peace.

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But alliances are tenuous and often of convenience. Shortly after Malmstrom's unit left Aranas, foreign fighters decided to take advantage of the inexperienced new unit and launched a major attack on the base, disguised as local Afghan security forces. The base was nearly overrun, and Ferrara was forced to call in an air strike on his own position. In the end, the attackers were driven off, but not before 11 of Ferrara's men were wounded and two Afghan soldiers killed. After the attack was repulsed, nominal stability briefly returned to the valley.

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On November 9, 2007, Ferrara and his men were returning from a meeting with the village elders when they were attacked at close range by a large number of Taliban fighters. …

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