A soldier from the 101st Airborne Division patrols the Pech Valley in 2010.
Wesley Morgan

What Was America Doing in Afghanistan?

The U.S. itself didn’t know—and that was the problem.

The soldiers living in the concrete maze of Combat Outpost (COP) Michigan treated the Taliban fire that poured in from the mountains as though it were weather: Bursts of machine-gun bullets were akin to drizzle, volleys of rocket-propelled grenades more like heavy rain.

“It might not be worth going out into that,” a tall, blond soldier remarked to a colleague, after the thump of an explosion on the compound kicked off a firefight as the outpost’s mortars shot back into the cloud-draped hills. By the time a jet dropped a bomb on one of the insurgent positions, the attack had already subsided and infantrymen were sitting outside again in Adirondack chairs, under a shroud of green plastic camouflage netting. “That was a good one,” another soldier said when the ground shook slightly, his voice tinged with regret—he was sorry he’d forgotten to get his video camera out to record it for posterity and Facebook.

These troops at COP Michigan during the summer of 2010 wore the black Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st Airborne Division. Members of the division’s 1-327 Infantry battalion, nicknamed the Bulldogs, were two months into a deployment to the valley formed by the fast-moving Pech River, 100 miles northeast of Kabul. Michigan sat where a smaller tributary joined the Pech: Across the flood-swollen river, two rocky teeth flanked the mouth of the Korengal, the infamous “valley of death” from which the previous unit in the area had pulled out shortly before the Bulldog battalion deployed.

The cover of Wesley Morgan's new book, 'The Hardest Place'
This post was excerpted from Morgan’s new book.

Michigan’s defenders knew just bits and pieces about what was going on inside the Korengal now. Snippets of insurgent walkie-talkie chatter in Arabic—a foreign language in Afghanistan—suggested that out there somewhere, al-Qaeda operatives were working with the local Taliban. Within the outpost’s concrete-ringed operations center, the unexcitable company commander, Captain Dakota Steedsman, gave me a summary of what his soldiers had experienced so far: On his second day, a heavy machine gun, firing with surprising accuracy from a ridge two-thirds of a mile inside the Korengal, had pinned his men down and wounded a sergeant inside the base’s little chow hall. Other soldiers had been wounded since, and one had died. I should expect to see three or four attacks on the outpost, each lasting anywhere from five to 45 minutes, every day during my stay, Steedsman told me.

This proved correct. The day’s third attack began at 7:35 p.m. Machine-gun rounds and RPGs snapped in from inside the Korengal, kicking up gravel and ricocheting off concrete barriers. Soldiers fired back from the turrets of armored trucks parked at intervals within the perimeter. I tagged along with the company’s senior noncommissioned officer as he ran through the labyrinth of concrete and dirt-filled barriers over to the mortar pit.

“First Sergeant, you’re not running around out here, are you?” one mortarman asked as we arrived, then turned to me, the visiting reporter: “You came at a good time,” he joked. He and a few other soldiers were dropping rounds into three tubes, sending explosive shells arcing toward grid coordinates they’d long since memorized, and then ducking into a concrete shelter when the incoming fire got too close.

After two months in the valley, this kind of fighting was what the soldiers I was visiting were accustomed to. For me, the war in the Pech was something different and surprising.

I was 22 years old, about the same age as many of the troops I was reporting on, and had been making trips to Iraq and Afghanistan as a freelance journalist for three years. The terrain here was so beautiful and rugged that it hardly seemed real, a sharp contrast to the dry hills, battered cities, and muggy farmlands I’d encountered elsewhere—an observation many soldiers shared when arriving in Kunar or Nuristan Provinces after past deployments to Iraq or other parts of Afghanistan. And instead of a war of hidden bombs, this was a war of firefights and firepower, where young infantrymen not only routinely shot at the enemy but called in huge numbers of mortar shells, howitzer shells, rockets and missiles from attack helicopters, and satellite-guided bombs from jets.

“You get there, and the Pech delivered in every way. You really felt like you were doing what you signed up for,” one veteran would tell me later, echoing a sentiment I found common among sergeants and lieutenants who fought there. “I call it ‘Kunar syndrome,’” another agreed. “For those of us who joined the infantry, that place is exactly what we envisioned.”

The slightly larger base that housed the Bulldog battalion’s headquarters, Camp Blessing, was four miles up the Pech, beyond Michigan. The westernmost in a string of four outposts in the valley, it was named after the first American soldier to have died there, an Army Ranger sergeant named Jay Blessing who had been killed by a roadside bomb nearly seven years earlier. Almost 100 U.S. troops had died in the Pech and its tributaries by late July 2010, including four so far from the Bulldog battalion; many of their names were engraved on marble plaques in the base’s main courtyard. Clouds drifted just above the villages on the slopes, and the flags of Afghanistan, the United States, and the U.S. Army waved above.

The senior U.S. officer in the Pech, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Ryan, surprised me when I interviewed him about his battalion’s mission. Forty-one years old but with less gray in his short haircut than some of his company commanders, Ryan was a West Point graduate from Pearl River, New York, and he had been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq since the first months after September 11, as an officer in the night-raiding 75th Ranger Regiment.

I had become accustomed to commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq promoting the counterinsurgency operations their units were conducting, even hyping them—rattling off numbers to indicate progress, making rosy predictions about the situations they would hand off to their successors. Ryan didn’t do that. It was the summer of President Barack Obama’s Afghan surge, and with nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in the country, all the other battalions I’d visited over the past couple of months had been expanding, building new outposts in new districts. But Ryan talked about retracting. “Sometimes just your presence causes destabilization. We see that on our patrols here,” he said. “Here, the time is done for coalition forces to keep spreading out into more places.”

Since April, he acknowledged, attacks on COP Michigan had increased, likely because the Korengal pullout had shifted insurgents’ attention toward the base. Michigan, in fact, was now enduring more daily attacks than any other U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Ryan wasn’t convinced that he or his troops, or indeed any other Americans, understood enough about what was going on within the complex coalition of insurgent factions in the Pech to conclude that any particular change in the guerrillas’ behavior was the result of U.S. actions. During the same period that attacks against Michigan had risen, for example, attacks against Camp Blessing had decreased, and he didn’t know why.

There was another thing Ryan didn’t claim to know for sure: just what he and his men were doing in the Pech. “Why are we here?” he asked me. “Are we building a nation? Are we chasing terrorists? I read the same news as you do, and it doesn’t always seem very clear.”

What was obvious in the Pech in the summer of 2010 was that U.S. forces and the Taliban had fought each other to a stalemate. For counterinsurgents as for insurgents, the cooperation of the people was everything, and there, the people were sick and tired of both. Children in the village outside COP Michigan, who tended to stare frostily at American patrols as they walked through town or flash them the middle finger, were so hardened to the violence that during gunfights they would often stroll through the cross fire, picking up expended brass shell casings so that they could sell them in the market.

Some of the patrols that I accompanied from Camp Blessing headed north, a short ways into a side valley called the Waygal. The officer in charge of these missions was a lieutenant two years out of West Point named Alex Pruden. Years later, Pruden recalled to me the moment the situation he and his platoon faced crystallized for him.

It had been the day of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, a month after my visit in 2010, and Pruden was back at Blessing decompressing from a day of thrilling, nerve-racking firefights when his mind wandered to the science-fiction epic Avatar, which had hit theaters as the Bulldog battalion was getting ready to deploy. In the movie, human invaders with the mannerisms and high-and-tight haircuts of U.S. military personnel are stationed on a gorgeous alien world called Pandora; they venture from their bases into the lush jungle only in lumbering vehicles to exploit its natural resources. The analogy was imperfect but obvious. Pruden knew that unlike the marauding East India Company–like corporation in Avatar, the U.S. military had come to the Pech with good intentions, and that the valley had not been some idyllic Eden before Americans arrived. But it still felt as if he and the rest of the Bulldog battalion were the movie’s space mercenaries and the Pech was Pandora.

Less obvious was how things had gotten this way. In a conflict where units rotated every six or 12 months and passed down only small parts of their experience to their successors, the origins of U.S. involvement in the Pech were murky, as were many events along the way. Why were the bases even there? Ask a soldier at COP Michigan how long the outpost had been in existence, and you would get a shrug. It had been there when the Bulldog battalion deployed, and when the battalion before that deployed, and the battalion before that; as far as almost any of the troops I spoke with were concerned, it had always been there.

As for why the base had been established in the first place, who knew, and what did it matter? Life at the embattled Pech outposts was what it was, and their garrisons were just trying to get through it, to the end of their year, not wondering too much about the decisions their predecessors had made or how American goals in the valley had morphed over the years.

Even at the height of news coverage of the war, when embedded reporters such as myself were regular visitors, much was happening in and around the Pech valley that neither they nor the infantry units they were covering could see, under cover of darkness and top-secret classification.

Throughout Afghanistan, while troops such as those at Michigan and Blessing were fighting a daytime war, special-operations forces including Army Rangers and Navy SEALs were fighting a nighttime one, hunting Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda operatives. These counterterrorism troops had led the way into the Pech, undertaking missions—and often leaving messes—that the infantry soldiers who arrived later were told little or nothing about.

The one person in the Bulldog battalion who understood this part of the history of U.S. involvement was Ryan. During his time in the Rangers, he had been part of it (and he would be part of it again later as the counterterrorism mission continued from the air, with drones). “We drove through this valley in Hilux pickup trucks,” Ryan told me during one conversation at Camp Blessing, sounding almost surprised at the memory and its contrast with the armored behemoths the Bulldog battalion used now. It was during that operation that Jay Blessing had been killed and the base that bore his name had been established.

This post was excerpted from Morgan’s new book, The Hardest Place.