By Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Friday, August 29, 2008
MIRZA GUL MUHAMMAD, Afghanistan — Sgt. 1st Class Mark Hammer had a cunning plan.
The day’s training was done. The Afghan police and the U.S. advisory team “Swamp Fox” were heading back to Qalat, just a few miles up the road. With the rest of the team getting ready to leave, Hammer and a handful of other soldiers quietly drifted away. They planned to hang back in the village and see who showed up after everyone else was gone.
The abandoned village of Mirza Gul Muhammad, just south of the provincial capital of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan, was a perfect spot to lay out an ambush for the Taliban. A second-story room with thick mud walls provided great cover for the small team, giving them a spot to watch over the dirt tracks that led down from the mountains into the village. They figured Taliban fighters had been watching from up in the hills.
The Americans had provided the Taliban with an almost irresistible lure. For hours, they’d been running the Afghan police through a set of close-quarter battle drills, firing weapons and throwing hand grenades. Most of the Americans and Afghans pulled out around 3:30 p.m.
Hammer, 35, of Columbus, Ga., the platoon sergeant; Capt. Jack Nothstine, 29, of Richmond, Va., the assistant team leader; Sgt. Adam Jackson, 25, of Hopewell Junction, N.Y.; and Sgt. Timothy Hanley, 34, of Wallingford, Conn., hid out as the U.S. Humvees and Afghan police trucks rumbled from the village in a cloud of dust.
An Afghan police sergeant and an interpreter also stayed behind. Hammer knew the sergeant, and figured the man could be trusted. The same couldn’t be said for the rest of the Afghan police, some of whom were suspected to be on the Taliban’s payroll.
The plan Hammer and Nothstine had worked out rested on the assumption that the Taliban had been watching them from the mountains, and would want to come down and check out the village after the other troops left.
They weren’t mistaken.
Less than an hour later, they got their first caller. He was an old Kuchi — an Afghan gyspy — who had been camped nearby. He’d come over out of pure curiosity. The Taliban hate the Kuchis, so the old man was no threat. Nothstine and the others gave him cigarettes and water, but told him that he’d have to stay put until they were gone. The old man gave them no complaints.
A group of young men appeared in the village around 6 p.m. They had sneaked in through an orchard, right through the one spot the soldiers couldn’t cover. Suddenly, one of them was standing on a flat mud roof on the other side of the compound from where the soldiers were hiding.
“One minute, they were way off in the distance,” said Nothstine. “The next minute, one of them was on the roof.”
Jackson said to himself, “Where in the hell did this guy come from?”
The soldiers yelled at the man to stop and put up his hands. He complied, briefly.
“He nods at his friends, then superman jumps off the roof, and he and his friends start running,” Nothstine said.
The soldiers fired several warning shots, but the men didn’t stop.
“They should’ve been in the Olympics, the way they were running through that orchard,” said Hammer.
Nothstine and Jackson gave chase. They ran to the top of a nearby hill. Three men were on a tractor on the other side. Jackson fired a couple of more shots over their heads. They gave up.
The soldiers brought their captives back and began questioning them separately. None of them had weapons or radios, but the one who had been standing on the roof had a cell phone charger, an extra SIM card, several calling cards, but no phone. Nothstine figured that he dropped the phone in the orchard, but with darkness falling, there was no way to find it.
The one man claimed that it wasn’t him on the roof. Then he admitted he was, but said he’d only been curious about what the Americans were doing. The Afghan police sergeant recognized him from the Qalat bazaar, and said he had long been suspected of being a Taliban informant. Although all three men claimed they were simply farmers, they all had soft hands.
“There were some blatant lies in there,” Nothstine said.
A fourth man had gotten away, and the soldiers started picking up chatter from the Taliban scattered from the hills. They knew exactly where the Americans were hiding.
Then four other men showed up in a Toyota Corolla and started nosing around. The soldiers detained them, too. But they were much older. One of them said he was the father of one of the other three who had come into the village earlier. He’d only come to see what had become of him.
“By then we had more captives on the ground than we had shooters,” said Hammer. “It was time to call it.”
Swamp Fox and the Afghan police came back a little later to get them out. After some discussion, the Afghan police decided to let the four older men go.
Nothstine sent the old Kuchi man back on his way, but only after offering him water for his family and plenty of thanks for his cooperation.
The Afghan police took the three younger men back to their headquarters for questioning.
A grain cache had also been discovered, presumably hidden there by the Taliban.
The plan had gone off without a hitch. The Americans had nailed at least one suspected Taliban informant, and they had passed along some crafty tactical American know-how to an Afghan sergeant.
“Now he can take that plan and use it himself,” Hammer said.