(NURISTAN, Afghanistan) — The mission was Afghan-led and run with 10 or so American soldiers bringing up the rear. The goal was to sweep through a series of remote mountain villages and reclaim the valley where Taliban insurgents were believed to be heavily entrenched.
It was exactly the kind of mission the Afghan National Army would need to carry out as U.S. forces begin their drawdown across the country. It was also a perfect test case for the key question at this stage of the war: Can the Afghans go it alone?
They set out early Thursday morning from the small base at Kalagush, the only base for U.S. forces in Nuristan Province. It’s a tiny base protecting a long, winding river valley that heads north into the further reaches of the province.
Nuristan has long been a transit point between the Afghan border with Pakistan, and the city of Kabul, which militants seek to penetrate to launch attacks.
With the Afghans in the lead, the troops moved through the first village without incident — the Americans in their support role, watching and waiting.
“OK, let’s go up there,” said Capt. Marcus Morgan. “That’s a Taliban flag right there.”
The Afghan forces were just leaving that first village, marching along a mountain ridge about five miles from Kala Gush, when the first bursts of incoming fire came.
“Where’s that coming from?” someone said over the radio.
Taliban fighters, perhaps lying in waiting, had ambushed the Afghan troops along the ridge. The Afghan troops fired back, beginning a sustained firefight that lasted about 10 minutes.
Because of a new mandate allowing U.S. forces to only give advice, American soldiers stayed back, forcing the Afghan troops to make decisions on their own.
But with mortars and heavy machine-gun fire surrounding the troops, and tempers flaring among the Afghans, one Afghan commander asked the Americans for air support. Within minutes the Afghan forces had power from the air, and the airstrikes ended the battle.
Back at Kalagush, this much was clear: The Afghan forces had performed well in some areas, but were terribly lacking in others.When the Afghans were called upon to fight, they did and they fought bravely.
Despite that, they suffered from serious command issues. The Afghan commander did not appear to have the support and loyalty of his own brigade. At times, his second in command openly criticized him, shouting at him for not sending enough fighters up to a plateau that was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting.
In the end, it took American air power to win the fight. And even after jets had taken out the militants’ positions, the Afghan commander refused to push further into the valley for fear it could put more troops at risk.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ben Westcott, CNN
Mohammed Tawfeeq, Joe Sterling and Susanna Capelouto, CNN
Ralph Ellis and Steve Almasy, CNN