by DAVID AXE and JASON REICH
WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Everyone knew election day was going to be hot. In the weeks before Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential election — only the second for the country’s current government — the terror group Al Qaeda and the extremist Taliban insurgent group had vowed to ratchet up their attacks on the Afghan people, the government and the U.S.-led NATO military coalition.
The dushman — that’s Dari for “bad guys” — made good on their promises. Violence spiked all over the country, especially in outlying provinces where NATO’s presence is thinnest. The bitter fighting on election day was a window into the eight-year-old Afghanistan war. Among the biggest lessons underscored by the election violence is the vital importance of helicopters to NATO’s far-flung operations.
Vertical lift has emerged as perhaps the most important enabling capability for waging a complex counter-insurgency campaign with relatively few troops in a country as big and rugged as Afghanistan. Where helicopters are available, NATO troops can move quickly over rough, contested terrain to out-maneuver their opponents. Attack helicopters are the most effective form of fire support: on countless occasions, the speedy appearance of U.S., British and Dutch Apache gunships has suppressed Taliban ambushes. Medical evacuation helicopters ensure that wounded soldiers reach a hospital within an hour’s time, resulting in the highest survival rate in history.
By the same token, the absence of gunships gets NATO troops killed in complex ambushes that can last for hours. A shortage of transport helicopters has curtailed NATO’s movements in provinces teetering on the brink of Taliban control. And the medevac mission, so vital to injured troops’ survival, is threatened by a combination of environmental and political factors.
In short, vertical lift is “my biggest headache,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen, commander of a combined U.S. and Czech battalion in Logar province, in the mountains south of Kabul. Soldiers across Afghanistan seconded Gukeisen’s sentiment.
The Battle for Nerkh
For the U.S. Army’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, deployed to Nerkh district, in Wardak province just west of Logar, the third week of August started out quietly but ominously, with sparse intelligence reports filtering into the company operations center. The reports indicated foreign fighters streaming into Wardak to bolster the Taliban’s anticipated election-day assault.
In coming days, Bravo Company would both benefit, and suffer from, NATO’s heavy reliance on helicopters.
As election day drew nearer, there were further indications of the impending attack in Nerkh. Afghans contracted to work on the company’s combat outpost told Bravo Company second-in-command, 1st Lt. Colin Riker, that they couldn’t work at the outpost any more. The Taliban would kill them if they did, the workers said. A few hours later, at a meeting with local Afghan army and police commanders, Riker learned that poll workers and government militiamen had also quit the district. Afghans were making themselves scarce before the fighting.
Riker pressed on with his assigned task, to establish and maintain a patrol base deep inside the Taliban-controlled western portion of Nerkh. From this base, NATO would be able to protect the district’s planned polling sites. Two AH-64D Apaches from the 101st Airborne Division’s 159th Combat Aviation Brigade — call signs “Mexican 53” and “Mexican 54” — were assigned to cover Bravo Company while they set up the patrol base. The Apaches flew from nearby Forward Operating Base Shank, the main airstrip for provinces just south of Kabul.
The first Taliban rockets struck the patrol base on the morning of Aug. 20. Bravo Company had just a single 60-millimeter mortar of its own to fire back. Mexican 53 and 54 spent the morning chasing down rocket teams. Later in the day, a patrol from Bravo Company blundered into a Taliban ambush. The soldiers managed to force back their attackers into a single walled compound. Rather than risk an assault, the patrol radioed to the Apaches to finish off the Taliban fighters. Mexican 53 and 54 made two passes firing their 30-millimeter rockets and 70-millimeter rockets. In a final act of defiance, one of the Taliban emerged from cover to fire a Rocket-Propelled Grenade at the Apaches. The rocket missed and struck a tree. After the fighting had subsided, Bravo Company would find five bodies in the compound.
Bravo was jubilant — but not for long. As the soldiers returned to the patrol base, a powerful Improvised Explosive Device exploded under the lead vehicle, killing Spec. Justin Pellerin and wounding six others. Mexican 53 and 54 had returned to FOB Shank to re-arm and re-fuel. Now they raced back to Nerkh to cover an inbound flight of casualty-evacuation helicopters. Not taking any chances, the battered patrol also called in a Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter to perform a low-level “show of force,” hopefully scattering any lingering ambushers.
The evacuation choppers were 20 minutes out. The Apache pilots offered to carry some of the wounded out themselves, rather than force them to wait. On several occasions in recent years, U.S. and U.K. AH-64 crews have strapped soldiers to their fuselages to speed them out of dangerous areas. Before Bravo could take Mexican 53 and 54 up on their offer, the UH-60 Blackhawks with the Red Crosses on their sides arrived. With the dead and injured on their way to medical facilities, the Apaches spent a few minutes orbiting the Nerkh patrol base, shooting up suspected locations for rocket launchers. Rotations of Apaches and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles would stay with Bravo Company all through the night, warding off any subsequent attacks.
Bravo was lucky that there were no delays with the medical birds. The U.S. Air Force chopper crews that fly heavily-modified HH-60Gs on the most daunting medical missions say their highly-sought-after aircraft is too old, too underpowered and too small for such a vital mission in mountainous terrain. The Pentagon is actually considering scrapping the Air Force’s dedicated rescue fleet at a time when such a capability is in greater demand than ever.
In the days following the Battle of Nerkh, Riker was determined to hold on to the election-day patrol base his men had paid for in blood. But the road that had claimed Pellerin was too dangerous for regular ground convoys. All movements between Bravo’s main outpost and the patrol base would have to be by CH-47 Chinook or Blackhawk. The distance amounted to barely four miles. The average flight time was just three minutes. Even so, a regular shuttle was too taxing for the stretched-thin aviators at Shank. Flight cancellations frequently stranded Bravo’s soldiers at the patrol base for days longer than planned. Riker was at an impasse. “We can’t do anything here until we own the roads,” he said. “The helicopters are a stop-gap solution.”
But with just a few hundred soldiers to wrest from the Taliban a community of tens of thousands of people, it was unlikely Riker would be able to truly own the roads any time soon. A helicopters’ unique ability to carry people, weapons and sensors over Afghanistan’s unforgiving terrain had made them too priceless an asset to devote entirely to such a small-scale effort as Nerkh. Without helicopters, Riker could achieve nothing. But relying so heavily on vertical lift, as did most of the hundreds of other infantry companies in Afghanistan, meant sacrificing his own initiative.
Like many officers before him, and like the whole Afghan war effort, Riker was at the choppers’ mercy.
(Photo: David Axe)