Imperial Grunts

With the Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan—laboratories of counterinsurgency

The American invasion of Afghanistan a month after 9/11 was greeted with a chorus of dire, historically based predictions from the media and academia. American soldiers, it was said, would fail to defeat the rugged, unruly Afghans, just as the Soviets and the nineteenth-century British had. The Afghans had never been defeated by outsiders; nor would they ever be. After only a few weeks of American bombing, however, the Taliban fled the Afghan capital of Kabul in disarray. To say that the Americans succeeded because of their incomparable technology would be a narrow version of the truth. America's initial success rested on deftly combining high technology with low-tech field tactics. It took fewer than 200 men on the ground from the Army's 5th Special Forces Group, in addition to CIA troops and Air Force Special Ops embeds, helped by the Afghan Northern Alliance and friendly Pashtoons, to topple the Taliban regime.

If history could have stopped at that point, it would be an American success story. But history does not stop. By the fall of 2003 the Taliban had regrouped to fight a guerrilla struggle against the U.S.-led international coalition—similar to the struggle that the mujahideen had waged against the Soviets. With hit-and-run attacks across a dispersed and mountainous battlefield, and a new national army that needed to be trained and equipped, Afghanistan constituted a challenge better suited to Special Operations forces than to the conventional military.

W ith troops jammed elbow-to-elbow along the sides, divided by a high wall of Tuff bins, mailbags, and rucksacks, the C-47 Chinook, followed by its Apache escort, lifted off the pierced steel planking that the Soviets had left behind at Bagram Air Force Base. The rear hatch was left open where an M-60 7.62mm mounted gun was manned by a soldier strapped to the edge. Beyond the gun the landscape of Afghanistan fell away before me: mud-walled castles and green terraced fields of rice, alfalfa, and cannabis on an otherwise gnarled and naked sandpaper vastness, marked by steep canyons and volcanic slag heaps. The rusty, dried-blood hue of some of the hills indicated iron-ore deposits, the drab greens copper. Because of the noise of the engine, everyone wore earplugs. Nobody talked. Soon, like everyone else, I fell asleep.

An hour later the Chinook descended steeply amid twisted, cindery peaks. Hitting the ground, those of us who were headed for the firebase grabbed our rucksacks and ran off through the wind and dust generated by the rotors. At the same time, another group of soldiers, waiting on the ground, ran inside. The crew threw off the mailbags and Tuff bins. Then two soldiers on the ground led a hooded figure, his hands tied in flex cuffs and a number scrawled on his back, to the helicopter. In less than five minutes the Chinook roared back up into the sky.

The handcuffed man was a puc: "person under control"—what the U.S. military calls its temporary detainees in the war on terrorism. It has become a verb; to take someone into custody is to "puc him." The men who had put the puc in the Chinook—en route to Bagram, where he would be interrogated—were members of an Army Special Forces A team based at an Afghan firebase in Gardez. But they didn't look like any of the Green Berets I had so far encountered in my travels. These Green Berets had thick beards and wore traditional Afghan kerchiefs, called deshmals, around their necks and over their mouths, Lone Ranger—style, as protection against the dust. On their heads were either flat woolen Afghan pakols or ball caps. Except for their camouflage pants, M-4s, and Berettas, there was nothing to identify them with the U.S. military. They brought to mind the 2001 photos of Special Forces troops on horseback in Afghanistan that had mesmerized the American public and horrified the old guard at the Pentagon. All were covered with dust, like sugar-coated cookies.

I threw my rucksack in the back of one of their Toyota pickups and we drove to the firebase, a few minutes away. There was a science-fiction quality to the landscape, which seemed devoid of all life forms. Near the fort were two distinctive hills that the driver referred to as "the two tits."

Firebase Gardez is a traditional yellow, mud-walled fort; the flags of the United States, the State of Texas, and the Florida Gators football team were flying from its ramparts. Surrounded by barren hills on a tableland 7,600 feet above sea level, the fort looks like a cross between the Alamo and a French Foreign Legion outpost.

An armed Afghan militiaman opened the creaky gate. Inside, caked and matted with "moondust," as everyone called it, stood double rows of armored Humvees, armed GMVs (ground mobility vehicles), and Toyota Land Cruisers—the essential elements of a new kind of convoy warfare, in which Special Ops was adapting tactics more from the Mad Max style of the Eritrean and Chadian guerrillas of recent decades than from the lumbering tank armies of the passing Industrial Age.

Hidden behind the vehicles and veils of swirling dust were canvas tents, a latrine, a crude shower facility, and the perennial Special Forces standby—a weight room. Almost everyone here was either a muscular Latino or a white guy dressed like an Afghan-cum-convict-cum-soldier. Half of them smoked. They put Tabasco sauce on everything. Back at home most owned firearms. They bore an uncanny resemblance to the freelance journalists who had covered the mujahideen war against the Soviets two decades earlier.

"Welcome to the Hotel Gardez," said a smiling and bearded major, Kevin Holiday, of Tampa, Florida. Major Holiday was the commander of this firebase and of another in Zurmat, two hours south by dirt road. "Within these walls we have ODB-2070 and two A teams, 2091 and 2093," he told me in rapid-fire fashion. "Next door, living with an ANA [Afghan National Army] unit, is 2076. Down at Zurmat is 2074. Most of us are 20th Group guardsmen from Florida and Texas, here for nine months, except for a tent full of active-duty 7th Group guys on a ninety-day deployment"—the Latinos. "We're the damn Spartans." Holiday smiled again. "Physical warriors with college degrees."

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. This article, part of an Atlantic series, will appear in somewhat different form in Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, to be published this month by Random House.

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