Inside the battle of Shah-i-Kot, where the enemy had nothing to
lose and U.S. soldiers had to fight for their lives
This story from Time Magazine
In the TV commercials they call it "an army of one," and the phrase
is intended to send a message: in the U.S. armed forces, every person counts.
If you take a round, your buddies will come and get you. "The Ranger
creed is that you do not leave a fallen comrade on the field of battle,"
says David Anderson, of Jacksonville, Fla., a former Ranger whose son, Marc
Anthony Anderson, followed him into the Army. "I really believed in what
the creed says, and Marc did. He said, 'If something happens to me, don't
worry, because you'll have a body.'"
Last week Marc's body, along with those of seven other American soldiers,
was flown from Afghanistan to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany before coming
home for those proud, sad ceremonies that mark the death of young men in
battle. The Army had once more been asked to live up to the promise it makes
to those who serve. "We don't leave Americans behind," says Brigadier General
John Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Last week that word was kept. But the price for doing so was high.
For weeks U.S. forces had been watching as Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters
gathered south of Kabul. Code-named Operation Anaconda, the battle plan aimed
at this force was a hammer-and-anvil strategy. Friendly Afghans, assisted
by U.S. special forces, would flush the enemy from the north and northwest
toward three exits of the Shah-i-Kot valley, where American troops waited.
To the south, battle positions Heather and Ginger were divided by a hill
christened the Whale, while to the east, battle position Eve guarded escape
routes over the high mountains to Pakistan. But after two days of fierce
combat, the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were still in place; one American
had already been killed.
Before dawn on Monday, two huge MH-47 Chinooks, double-headed flying
beasts like something out of Tolkien, chugged through the frigid air. They
were on their way from Bagram air base, north of Kabul, to Shah-i-Kot and
the most intense battle so far of the Afghan war. A force that would eventually
grow to more than 1,000 Americans, drawn mainly from the 10th Mountain and
101st Airborne divisions, together with Afghan militias and about 200 special
forces from allied nations, was engaged with perhaps 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban
fighters-four times as many enemy men as the U.S. had expected. The battlefield
spread over 70 sq. mi., at altitudes that ranged from 8,000 to 12,000 ft.
and temperatures that dipped at night to 15*none.
The Chinooks headed for Ginger, at the southeast corner of the valley,
where American forces had met intense opposition two days before. As the
choppers prepared to set down, they came under heavy fire from small arms
and rocket - propelled grenades, one of which bounced, without exploding,
off the armor of a Chinook. In the same bird, a hydraulic line was cut, and
the pilots radioed back to Bagram that continuing with the mission would
be suicide. Major General Frank (Buster) Hagenbeck, the force commander,
agreed, and the choppers veered away to the north, climbing steeply. They
found a place to set down and did a head count. On the damaged Chinook, one
man was missing. They counted again. Navy seal Neil Roberts, the rear gunner
who had been returning fire from the open back hatch, was no longer with
his team. Roberts had apparently been jolted out when the chopper banked
hard to the north.
The Rangers radioed Bagram for permission to go after their man.
Hagenbeck agreed, and the undamaged Chinook dropped off six commandos to
search for Roberts; then both helicopters returned to base. Unmanned surveillance
aircraft searched for the missing man and found him moving across the valley.
Images beamed from the drones to video monitors at Bagram showed three men
approaching Roberts. They were at first thought to be friendly.
Then Roberts was seen trying to flee. About three hours after the
first incident, two more Chinooks set off from Bagram on a dual mission:
to rescue Roberts and to insert more troops at Ginger. One of the choppers
took heavy machine-gun fire. It shuddered and spiraled toward the ground
but managed to crash-land less than a mile from the place the first pair
had come under attack. As the troops clambered out of the wrecked MH-47,
they were ambushed. Hagenbeck ordered AC-130 gunships to the battle to provide
close air support, but the al-Qaeda barrage was so intense that U.S. troops
couldn't be lifted out during daylight. Fighting continued through the day,
as the first team searching for Roberts fought its way to the downed Chinook.
It was not until midnight that the last U.S. soldier was evacuated.
The choppers also carried 11 wounded and the bodies of seven Americans-
Roberts and six of his would-be rescuers. Roberts had died at the hands of
his three pursuers.
Soldiers know the nature of their business. But death in war is no
less painful to those left behind just because it goes with the mission.
Roberts, 32, from a suburb of Sacramento, Calif., left a wife and 2-year-old
daughter. "He was a great guy," said his sister-in-law Denise Roberts. "His
mother said at least she knew he died doing what he loved to do." Valerie
Chapman, widow of Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman, 36, who lived
in Fayetteville, N.C., had the same thought. "You have to love it to do what
they do," she said of her husband, who died with Anderson and four others
in the fire fight after the Chinook crash-landed. "And he loved his
It isn't just the death of Americans that distinguishes the battle
of Shah-i-Kot-or even its intensity. (After a week of fighting, U.S.
and French planes were still bombing enemy positions relentlessly.) Privately,
in the Pentagon, a conviction is growing that the battle may be a climactic
moment in the war. Before Christmas, in the ridges and caves of Tora Bora,
the Americans had let their Afghan proxies do most of the fighting on the
ground. As a result, hundreds-perhaps thousands-of al-Qaeda fighters escaped
to fight another day. In Shah-i-Kot the brunt of the dirty work has been
borne by Americans.
After a week of fighting, a military source estimated that 800 Taliban
and al-Qaeda fighters had been killed. Total confirmed casualties on the
allied side: 11 dead, of whom eight were American and three Afghan, and 88
wounded, 18 of them Afghan.
The commitment of U.S. power was necessary because of the surprisingly
large force arrayed in Shah-i-Kot. Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan's
interim government, called the valley "the last isolated base of terrorism"
in his country. Pentagon officials dispute that-a source says there are still
major pockets of resistance around Herat and Kandahar-but acknowledge that
the number of enemy troops in Shah-i-Kot was extraordinary.
One other thing about the Taliban and al-Qaeda warriors at Shah-i-Kot:
they fought to the death. That may be because the Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks
among them have nowhere to go, save Guantanamo Bay. But their ferocity may
have another cause. In the caves on the snow-covered ridges may hide some
top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including, possibly, one of the big three,
Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri. "There's no question
that these people didn't just happen to all meet there," says Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld. "There's clearly leadership involved."
Shortly after the battle began, U.S. intelligence detected hundreds
of al-Qaeda sympathizers streaming toward the front lines from
American officials wonder why such reinforcements would set off on
a suicide mission unless they thought their leaders were trapped. American
forces believe they have identified one "high-value target" in the valley,
distinguished by the extent of his protection. Sardar Khan Zadran, a local
commander, told Time that last Wednesday, at a checkpoint on a mountain road
leading to Khost, American-trained Afghan militiamen frisked two tribesmen
and found an audiotape of bin Laden, some photographs of him, a letter detailing
al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and a list of local chieftains who are
taking bribes. The tape was whisked off to Bagram for analysis. Does Khan
think bin Laden is up in the hills? "I don't know about Osama," he told Time,
"but a lot of his friends are there."
More friends, certainly, than U.S. intelligence had detected. "The
picture intel painted," says Sergeant Major Frank Grippe of the 10th Mountain
Division, who took shrapnel wounds in his legs on the first day, "was just
a little bit different from events happening on the ground." That's a soldier's
understatement. As they prepared at Bagram, U.S. forces were told to ready
themselves to meet from 150 to 200 of the enemy. After less than a week of
battle, the Pentagon was already claiming they had killed around 500, and
the fighting still wasn't over. What had gone wrong?
The answer: partial information and the rivalries of local warlords,
which in Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin. The Americans have always
known that Paktia province, where the fighting is taking place, is bandit
country. (Ironically, the new governor of the province, and Karzai's voice
there, is an American citizen: Taj Muhammad Wardak spent the past decade
in Los Angeles.) Shah-i-Kot was a well-known base for the mujahedin fighting
Soviet forces in the 1980s; indeed, the Soviets never took the valley. The
soft shale on the ridges is ideal for the construction of caves. One cave,
visited last week by a Time reporter, was at least 40 yards deep and high
enough to swallow a pickup truck. Many Afghans in Paktia still sympathize
with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Near Khost, the tomb of an al-Qaeda warrior
killed by a U.S. bomb while he was praying at a mosque has become a
Local villagers are convinced that the dead man's ghost has healing
powers. After the fall of the Taliban, about 500 renegade fighters,
together with Arabs and other foreigners and their families-around 2,000
people, according to some estimates-holed up in the town of Zurmat. About
three weeks ago, local chieftains got wind of a possible U.S. strike and
went to the al-Qaeda fighters with an open Koran, pleading with them to leave-and
offering them about $10,000 to do so. Then the al-Qaeda men appeared in the
village with their wives and children, all wearing funeral shrouds, according
to Din Mohammad Darwish, a local radio technician. They cried, "You're sending
us to our graves!" The villagers backed down.
Infighting among local warlords in the region allowed al-Qaeda to
mass there. "We were busy with clashes of power," says Afghan commander Abdul
Mateen Hassan Khel, sitting in an office in the provincial capital of Gardez,
with 40 Russian tanks rusting outside his window. "Pockets of al-Qaeda from
Jalalabad and other places were able to move in with them, so many are there
now." Whether or not bin Laden and his top lieutenants are in the region,
the known commanders are ripe enough targets. They include Ibrahim Haqqani,
whose brother, a Taliban leader sought by the U.S., is thought to be hiding
in Pakistan; Latif Mansour, the former Taliban Minister for Agriculture;
and Saifur Rahman Mansoor, Latif's nephew, a former Taliban military commander
in his early 30s.
The young Mansoor has become a legend in the region. His supporters
claim he has said he would prefer to die fighting than live under U.S.
occupation. The son of a famed mujahedin who was killed by a car bomb
in 1993, he seems to have tried to make a deal with Wardak to surrender his
forces when an American attack became imminent. But local feuds got in the
way; Mansoor led his troops into the mountains, where they had already made
Wardak says that in the tiny villages that cling to the slopes, al-Qaeda
fighters had been buying the houses with mud walls, like miniature medieval
fortresses. "Those who didn't want to sell," Wardak told Time, "were asked
to leave." Some al-Qaeda fighters hunkered down; high above the valley floor,
others headed for the caves that Mansoor's father had dug 20 years
The attack Mansoor expected finally came on Saturday morning, March
2, after being postponed for 48 hours because of bad weather. At Bagram,
Colonel Frank Wiercinski told his men that this would be a "defining moment"
in their lives. Echoing the motto of the 10th Mountain Division, he said,
"This is your climb to glory." The helicopters took off and flew south. The
division, heading for battle position Eve, attacked the villages of Sarkhankhel,
Marzak and Babakul, taking al-Qaeda by surprise. "The bad guys were drinking
tea when we arrived," says Hagenbeck. "Our snipers," says one soldier, "whacked
a whole lot of people."
But almost immediately, other Americans ran into far more trouble
than they had bargained for. At battle position Ginger, Grippe found hundreds
of enemy fighters waiting. "They came at us with mortars, rpgs, and light
and heavy machine guns," he told Time. "From a blocking mission, it turned
into a reconnaissance force on an al-Qaeda stronghold." Grippe radioed to
base for reinforcements and was told that none could get through the hail
of fire. He was ordered to hold out until after dark, when evacuation would
It was still only 7 a.m. Grippe's team spent the day fighting off
Taliban and al-Qaeda incursions. "My men were whacking people from 400 to
500 meters," he said, "but there were also gunfights. We're talking nose
to nose." Incessant mortar fire kept men pinned, squirming, to the
"With small arms, you can fight back," says Sergeant David Smith,
who was hit twice. "But with mortars, you can't do anything much about it.
We had to just lie on the ground and basically take it." By the time the
first rescue helicopters arrived at 8 p.m., the 10th Mountain had 17 wounded.
One man lost two toes; another had to have blood pumped out of his lungs.
"We'd just been in a gunfight for 18 hours," Smith told Time, before correcting
himself. "I would say the gunfight lasted for 17 hours and 58 minutes. The
first two minutes weren't bad."
Amazingly, the companies at the south of the valley did not suffer
an American fatality that first day. Things went less well in the northwest,
where a force of Afghans led by General Ziahuddin, accompanied by American
special forces, was to enter the valley from Zurmat. Abdul Sabur, a young
Afghan, had signed on with the Americans for $200 a month, plus a mountain
parka, a new Kalashnikov assault rifle and the promise of meat at least once
a day. The risks seemed worth it; Sabur's own commander had not paid him
That Saturday morning, the convoy headed east along a muddy, rutted
road. Sabur was in the back of a brightly colored pickup; two Americans
sat in the cabin, and another team of special forces followed them. As the
truck splashed around a muddy bend, Sabur told Time, "al-Qaeda opened fire
on us with something big." In a mud-brick hut was hidden an antiaircraft
gun or mortar. Munitions ripped through the cabin. Sabur took shrapnel in
The convoy returned fire and called in air support. Three helicopters
thundered up the canyon, blasting away at enemy positions. A few days later,
another Afghan from the convoy showed a Time reporter the truck, lying on
its side in a ditch. "When we'd finished," he said, "all the Arabs were dead."
So were three Afghans and one American. Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley
Harriman, 34, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., who had been in the cabin of Sabur's
truck, was flown to Bagram, where he received last rites.
Intense fighting continued through Tuesday and Wednesday. In the
first five days of the battle, some 500 bombs and missiles were dropped on
Gunships raked al-Qaeda positions, killing hundreds. "You could hear
the AC-130 bombers circling above in the clouds, then this slow thud, thud,
thud," said Marine Captain Jeff Pool. "Then these great showers of dust would
rise up from the valley floor." By the weekend, snow and freezing rain returned,
and American commanders had to decide whether to risk more casualties by
going after those fighters-maybe 200 of them-still in the caves.
The battle, said an emotional President Bush in Florida last week,
"is a sign of what is going to happen for a while." In the war against terrorism,
more American casualties are inevitable. One day, perhaps, Americans will
tire of the slow drip of deaths-three here, five there-of the sort that old
colonial powers like France and Britain once learned to endure. That hasn't
happened yet; Shah-i-Kot marks the first time in many years that Americans
have died in battle on a foreign field without a sense of outrage and shame
at home. After 18 Army Rangers and special forces died at the battle of Mogadishu
in 1993-the subject of the film Black Hawk Down-some relatives of the dead
thought their sons had been betrayed by their political leaders, while many
citizens felt guilty about allowing men to be placed in danger for an ill-defined
This time is different. Twenty-eight Americans have died in the war
since October, but the national mood remains resolute. Here, without argument,
is one way in which Sept. 11 truly has changed the way we think. "The American
public," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a military
scholar, "is sensible about war and amazingly stoical." Who, six months ago,
would have dared say that?
You may read an extended version of this account in SgtMacsBar CCT
Stories "Ambush". There is also a fisrt hand account of the actions
and a few other comments. Please send me any stories you have.