CHIMTAL, Afghanistan—Inside the mud-walled compound, the Green Berets found a small cookhouse. Hanging on the cookhouse wall was a blanket. Concealed behind the blanket was the entrance to a lightless tunnel. Stretched across the tunnel, about 25 yards in, was a knee-high wall of sandbags.
And kneeling behind the sandbags was a Taliban fighter with a loaded machine gun.
In an instant, the Green Berets raiding the compound, and the Taliban fighters holed up in it, faced the near certainty that someone wasn’t getting out of there alive.
U.S. commanders have long abandoned hope for a purely military victory in the 17-year conflict. Instead, they see this kind of calibrated military pressure—an approach they call “metering the violence”—as a means of strengthening the American and Afghan position in peace negotiations.
The escalation inherently means greater risks to American troops, whose main job is training and advising Afghan forces. The raid that played out last month in Chimtal, a desert-dry collection of steep hills and rugged villages in northern Afghanistan, is just one of many similar operations being carried out in one form or another all over the country, where U.S. and Afghan forces are escalating offensive operations against the Taliban this fall.
On Saturday, a U.S. airstrike killed Abdul Manan, a senior Taliban leader and the group’s shadow governor in Helmand province, according to American and Taliban officials. Helmand, in southern Afghanistan, is the country’s top opium producer and a major source of illicit revenue for the insurgency.
“You turn the dial up,” said Gen. Scott Miller, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, in an interview at his Kabul headquarters. “The purpose is not just to kill,” he said. “It’s to shape the political environment.”
Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, President Trump’s lead adviser on Afghanistan, has met with Taliban representatives multiple times since early October, and U.S. officials sense a new willingness on the Taliban’s part to strike a deal. The terms of an agreement—would, for instance, the U.S. retain bases in Afghanistan to strike al Qaeda and Islamic State militants?—are anything but clear.
In the meantime, both sides are jockeying for advantage on the battlefield to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table.
The Taliban are hitting Afghan security checkpoints and grabbing public-relations victories by briefly seizing district centers. In October, a militant assassinated the powerful police chief of southern Kandahar province at a meeting with Gen. Miller. Another American general was wounded. On Sunday, Army Sgt. Jason M. McClary died of injuries suffered in last week’s roadside bombing in Afghanistan’s eastern Ghazni province, the military said. His death brought U.S. fatalities in the incident to four, the deadliest day for American forces this year.
U.S. and Afghan militaries are taking the offensive nationwide, conducting airstrikes to hit Taliban leaders and back up ground raids by Afghan commandos, U.S. Green Berets and Army Rangers. The U.S. Air Force reported it dropped more munitions in the first nine months of this year—5,213—than the total it dropped in any of the past five years.
U.S. Air Force aircraft released more weapons over Afghanistan in the first nine months of 2018 than it had in any full year since 2011.
The U.S. is reluctant to get into tit-for-tat body counts, but American officers say they might kill dozens of insurgents on any given night. “It’d be better for Afghanistan if they just stopped fighting,” said Col. David Butler, the allied military spokesman. “But we’re going to make it exceedingly painful for them in the meantime.”
The Chimtal raid
In Chimtal, the Afghan government forces and Green Berets were hunting for local Taliban leaders who, intelligence reports suggest, facilitate the flow of weapons and fighters to Kabul and other cities.
This account of the raid comes from interviews with special-operations soldiers and firsthand observations by The Wall Street Journal, which accompanied the Green Berets on the mission. Military media rules allow commandos to be identified only by rank or specialty.
U.S. aircraft had been watching suspect activity in the village for days. Intelligence reports suggested villagers had mixed feelings about the Taliban amid them. Some admire the insurgents; others fear them.
On a cold, clear night with a quarter-moon, the Green Berets thought they had found the moment to attack. “These guys have nowhere to go,” the team sergeant said as the men checked ammunition loads and first-aid kits.
This Green Beret team routinely operates with troops from an elite Afghan strike force called the Kteh Khas, or Special Unit, which is equipped with advanced gear.
After sundown, with the temperature dropping below freezing, the Americans and Afghans piled into two blacked-out helicopters. Door gunners scanned the landscape below. The men wore night-vision goggles that brightened the night but sharply narrowed their field of vision.
The men sat with their own thoughts until the flight crew passed word: 10 minutes to target, six minutes, three minutes. Then one minute out, and the helicopters dropped onto a slender ridgeline 1,100 feet above the village.
The team sergeant, a veteran Green Beret with a shaved head and bushy beard, spotted lasers flashing in the village, suggesting the Taliban belonged to one of the insurgency’s Red Units, which have access to high-tech gear once the sole province of Western forces in Afghanistan.
At the first target compound, the troops separated a man from his wife. The husband squatted outside in the compound yard, a scarf securing his hands behind his back. A female American soldier questioned his wife inside under a dim bulb.
The troops took the man with them to the second compound. It was around 10 p.m., but nobody was home in a village with nowhere to go at night.
The female soldier turned her attention to the husband.
“How many brothers do you have?”
“One,” the man answered.
“Your wife says you have two,” the soldier shot back. “Why are you lying?”
The Kteh Khas troops turned the rooms upside down. Beside the trappings of a normal village home—blue-and-orange floral throw pillows, a Singer sewing machine, a bare bulb powered by a car battery—the searchers found more nefarious items.
In a side room occupied by two goats, the Afghans found a homemade grenade fashioned out of ammonium-nitrate explosives in a blue Party Extreme energy-drink can. More alarming was a camouflage vest with pouches containing bricks of homemade explosives impregnated with ball bearings. A suicide vest awaiting a fitting.
The raiding party blew an opening in the exterior wall of the third target compound. Inside, they found an ominous collection of stolen Afghan police and army uniforms, along with the makings for 20 or so improvised explosive devices, with trigger mechanisms designed to detonate when stepped on.
Still no Taliban. The Green Beret team captain wondered if someone had tipped them off. The raid had originally been set for a couple of days earlier but was delayed by weather, giving time for word to leak out.
At the end of the village was a large compound with a sluggish white dog chained up at the door. It seemed a likely place to make a stand, and the team captain decided to take a look before heading home.
It was a typical Afghan rural homestead, with buildings along the outside walls, their doors opening into the privacy of the central courtyard. As the Afghan troops cleared each building, a young girl darted from one room to another. An Afghan soldier hoisted a boy by his arms and carried him to a safer spot.
The first rooms turned up nothing of interest. Then a couple of Green Berets decided to search the cookhouse, an eight-by-eight-foot square, built into the upward slope of the hill. Pots hung from the walls, and a blanket hung like a curtain above the cooking platform.
The Long War
U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
There are about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
There are roughly 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
There are about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
There are about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
One of the Green Berets, a communications specialist, pulled aside the blanket and revealed a hole, perhaps 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, leading into a tunnel carved deep and dark into the hillside. A Kteh Khas sergeant stepped onto the cooking platform and into the opening.
The bearded Taliban machine-gunner, crouched with a few comrades some 20 or 30 yards down the tunnel, waited until the Afghan soldier was well inside. Then he fired a burst of 10 or 15 rounds toward the opening.
One bullet ripped into the Afghan soldier’s leg. Another hit his radio and a third his rifle. A fourth slammed into the chest plate on his body armor.
The Afghan managed to squeeze off some rounds—he thought he hit two militants—before collapsing inside the tunnel entrance.
The team sergeant saw the Afghan soldier go down and thought that if he wasn’t dead already, he soon would be, lying fully exposed to Taliban fire.
The scene was chaotic. Muzzles flashed down the length of the tunnel, bullet impacts kicked up dust and debris. The Taliban fighter had night-vision goggles and was able to aim through the dust by tracking the Green Berets’ targeting lasers back to the Americans’ rifles. Despite the blackness, everyone could see everyone else.
The team sergeant stepped into the line of fire to seize hold of the limp body of the fallen Afghan sergeant. Bullet fragments and pieces of the wall peppered the Green Beret’s leg and sprayed the communications specialist who had stepped forward to cover him.
The team sergeant dragged the Afghan to the doorway of the cookhouse and handed him over to an Afghan combat medic.
The communications specialist and an intelligence sergeant took turns firing from the tunnel entrance. They could hear the report from the Taliban guns getting closer, suggesting the insurgents planned to rush the cookhouse, perhaps with a suicide vest.
In the courtyard, the team sergeant yelled, “I think I’ve been shot. F—, that hurts.”
“There are four or five guys barricaded in there,” he told the other Green Berets collected outside of the building.
He declined to seek medical attention, returned to the cookhouse and lobbed a hand grenade into the tunnel.
The sandbags apparently shielded the Taliban fighters from the shrapnel because the Green Berets were met with another burst of machine-gun fire when they turned the corner and re-entered the tunnel.
The grenade blast generated a cloud of smoke, which crept up vertical vent shaft that emerged from the tunnel from behind the sandbag barricade. A Green Beret in the courtyard spotted the smoke billowing out of the ground beyond the cookhouse.
“Get on the f—ing roof and find that vent,” he instructed the others.
One soldier climbed onto the roof and located an 18-inch wide opening. “I found the vent,” he called out. American and Afghan commandos fired down the shaft; the Taliban fired up it.
A U.S. soldier dropped a hand grenade into the vent, but it didn’t quiet the shooting inside. The men began to worry that the tunnel roof might cave in and take them down with it.
Inside the cookhouse, the team sergeant decided a regular grenade wasn’t going to suffice. So he pulled the pin on a thermobaric grenade, designed to burn hot using oxygen in the ambient air and create a lethal pressure wave in enclosed spaces. He tossed it into the tunnel.
Nothing happened. A dud.
The men at the vent outlet had the same idea and yelled a warning to the men at the cookhouse end of the tunnel. “Send it,” the team sergeant ordered.
The grenade set off a thunderous secondary explosion, perhaps by detonating the dud, a suicide vest or other munitions the Taliban stored in the tunnel.
The shock wave rattled the Green Berets inside the cookhouse. The communications specialist vomited against a wall outside. The team sergeant wandered the courtyard aimlessly, his thoughts and words a muddle.
The Taliban guns finally fell silent.
The Special Forces team worried that some fighters might have survived somewhere in the tunnel and could be planning a counterattack.
The troops collected 10 or so women, children and old men who had been hiding in the rooms and herded them out of the compound. “Get far away from here,” the female soldier instructed them through a translator.
The civilians scrambled up the steep slope on the far side of the village.
The soldiers soon followed, the Afghans struggling to hoist their wounded comrade’s stretcher up the incline.
The men were almost to the top of the ridge when a U.S. jet dropped the first 500-pound bomb on the cookhouse. A second bomb hit about 25 yards up the hillside. A third exploded about 50 yards farther, an attempt to collapse the tunnel on anyone still alive inside.
Later, government agents spoke with villagers, who confirmed that the men in the tunnel had been Taliban commanders and members of a Red Unit. The tunnel, they said, contained large quantities of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other weapons.
—Craig Nelson in Kabul contributed to this article.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
The Green Beret who discovered the Taliban tunnel was a communications specialist. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated he was a weapons specialist. (Dec. 7, 2018)