Special Report from Afghanistan: A Strategic Threat
The Tangi Valley is a stubbornly violent insurgent safe-haven connecting Wardak and Logar Provinces. It was in this valley in August 2011 that 38 people – including 22 Navy Seals and seven Afghan commandos – were killed when their helicopter was shot by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) as they attempted to reinforce Army Rangers pinned down in the valley below. It was the greatest loss of U.S. troops in a single incident since the beginning of the war. The Taliban don’t stay in the Tangi Valley, either. On September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Taliban insurgents from the Tangi Valley attacked Combat Outpost (COP) Sayed Abad – about 12 kilometers from the Tangi Valley along Highway 1, the vital artery connecting Kabul to Kandahar. The insurgents used a truck-bomb larger than the one that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Seventy-seven U.S. service members were wounded and four Afghan civilians, including a three-year-old girl, were killed.
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On September 29, 2012, a platoon from Task Force Bayonet (173d Airborne Brigade) left COP Sayed Abad for a fateful patrol to the Tangi Valley that would shake the partnership between the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan National Army (ANA) to its core.
The 16-man anti-tank platoon was headed for an ANA checkpoint at the mouth of the Tangi Valley to conduct biometrics – taking the fingerprints of civilians passing through the checkpoint, looking for insurgents. When the platoon arrived at the checkpoint, they found six Afghan soldiers manning the post, stopping cars, checking for suspicious activity. As the platoon set up their equipment and began operations, the atmosphere was cordial. An Afghan soldier offered the platoon’s Afghan interpreter chai (hot tea) and candies. Along with the platoon’s interpreter, the platoon sergeant, four American soldiers, and a civilian law enforcement professional (LEP, a retired American cop working with soldiers in Afghanistan) were dismounted at the checkpoint. The U.S. and Afghan soldiers joked about the last time the Americans had visited the checkpoint; they had been attacked by insurgents from deeper inside the Tangi Valley.
After 45 minutes, the atmosphere suddenly turned. Two Afghan soldiers raised their weapons and fired, instantly killing the platoon sergeant and the law enforcement professional. Three more soldiers were wounded before the gunner for the M249 (squad automatic weapon or SAW) and the platoon leader, firing from the passenger seat of his nearby vehicle, silenced the Afghan attackers. As more U.S. soldiers rushed to the scene to treat the wounded, the platoon took more fire from a compound a few dozen feet away; they responded by clearing the compound with rifles and grenades. As they tried to load up and evacuate their casualties, the platoon took more fire, this time from insurgents deeper in the Tangi Valley. As the platoon departed the checkpoint, about 90 minutes after they had arrived, two Americans and two Afghan soldiers were dead and three U.S. soldiers and four Afghan soldiers were wounded (two of these Afghans would later die of their wounds). Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Metcalfe, the slain platoon sergeant, was the 52d American killed this year in an insider attack and the 2,000th American service member killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war.
As of yet, no explanation for the attack has been found. There was no cultural affront that sparked the incident. Several of the Afghan soldiers involved were from northern, non-Pashtun provinces, their families beyond the reach of Taliban intimidation. It is as if this evil reached out from the Tangi Valley and infected these men’s souls.
The Afghan National Army has reluctantly admitted that the engagement was initiated by Afghan soldiers, and has pledged to take action to identify future insider threats before they can attack. But they must act fast. The American public is quickly losing patience.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Lt.Col. Pat Proctor is currently deployed to eastern Afghanistan, serving as the chief of plans for the 1st Infantry Division. He is a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan wars and the author of Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq. He is also a doctoral candidate in history at Kansas State University.