Gunfire and rockets erupted on both sides of the American patrol. It was the night of March 28, 2010, in Kunar province, along the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan. The ambush was one of at least two apparently coordinated attacks that struck U.S. Army forces operating from two small bases in the province’s main river valley.
Rockets exploded harmlessly against the sides of the thickly-armored American vehicles. While the soldiers, from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, based in Italy, would later complain about the deafening noise from the rocket strikes, it was another weapon that troubled them the most. Bullets bounced off the armored windshields of their vehicles, as though an insurgent sniper were deliberately targeting the drivers.
If true, that would jibe with what battalion intelligence had been saying for several days now, that the local insurgent elements had somehow gotten their hands on a Russian-made Dragunov sniper rifle — and knew how to use it.
In the early days of the then eight-year-old Afghan war, most of the NATO casualties resulted from small-arms fire. Often, the poorly-trained, poorly-equipped enemy — whether Taliban or some other group — would fire their rounds randomly. “Spray and pray” was how U.S. troops described the tactic. The lack of sophistication had the effect of keeping NATO fatalities low compared to U.S. deaths in the Iraq war.
Later, the Taliban and other groups adopted tactics refined in Iraq and Chechnya, emplacing increasingly powerful Improvised Explosive Devices beside or underneath roads. The bombs could be assembled from smuggled Iranian components or crafted from local materials, as in the case of the nitrate fertilizer bombs used in Afghan farming districts.
As the number and power of bombs has increased, so did the death rate for NATO forces. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of IED deaths nearly doubled from 78 to 152, according to iCasualties.org. A year later, that number had almost doubled again, to 275. IEDs accounted for 43 percent of NATO deaths in 2007 and 61 percent in 2009.
For all that, the troopers in Kunar had seen very few IEDs. Rockets and guns remained the local insurgents’ weapons of choice. 2nd Battalion had lost two soldiers since deploying in December 2009; both were shot. The battalion received intelligence of several bomb kits being smuggled into Kunar for potential attacks on U.S. patrols. The IEDs’ reported presence became a refrain of pre-mission briefings. That just a handful of bombs would so preoccupy planners was testimony to how few bombs the battalion saw.
For the front-line soldiers, the alleged sniper and his Dragunov rifle was far more alarming. “It scares the Hell out of me,” one 2nd Battalion sergeant said as he prepared to go on patrol two days after the March ambush.
The Kunar fighters’ preference for rockets and guns raised questions about their exact identity and underscores the fractured, heterogeneous nature of the Afghan insurgency. The alleged presence of a sniper further complicated the picture. Who was he? Where did he get such excellent training? How could NATO be sure there wouldn’t be more like him?
In the narrow mountain passes and deep valleys of Kunar, 2nd Battalion faced a bewildering array of enemies, according to Maj. Bill Hampton. They ranged from highly-organized, ideologically-motivated groups including the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Hizbul Islam, to various stripes of criminals “just trying to make a dollar” and an undetermined number of what Hampton characterized as “isolationists.”
“The fierceness you find in the fighters here is due to the terrain,” explained Air Force Tech Sgt. Phoebus Lazaridis, a forward air controller embedded in 2nd Battalion. “It’s a rougher breed of person.”
These isolationists, encamped deep in the smaller capillary valleys that intersect the main Kunar Valley, might have had a common foe with the Taliban and other Islamists, but that didn’t mean the isolationists necessarily liked the Islamists. Two days before getting ambushed, 2nd Battalion Capt. Joe Snowden had darted into the capillary Chowkay Valley to plead with local elders to block foreign fighters from entering their villages. The first of Snowden’s two meetings was cut short when teams of fighters, their identities unclear, surrounded the Americans on three sides. Snowden and his troops retreated before the ambushers could open fire.
At the second meeting, the elders said they wanted the foreign fighters out of the Chowkay but didn’t have the means to force them. “What should we do?” one man said. “We don’t have vehicles, weapons, anything.” Moreover, many Chowkay elders wouldn’t travel deep into their own valley, for fear of being attacked even by their own constituents, potentially including the very men who had just chased out Snowden. A seemingly chaotic mix of armed groups all but owned the remotest corners of Kunar.
And somewhere in that zone there was apparently a very dangerous rifle, and someone trained to use it. On March 31, 1st Lt. Cris Gasperini led a 2nd Battalion patrol into the town of Dangam to meet with an agent from the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan government’s main spy body. The agent recited the names of 24 local fighters he’d identified. Gasperini asked if any of them was known to carry a Dragunov. No, just AK-47s, the agent said.
The war — and the hunt for 2nd Battalion’s sniper — would drag on, both unresolved in the confusion and chaos of what would become America’s longest war.