JALREZ VALLEY, Afghanistan — Hundreds of U.S. troops pushed into a key Taliban stronghold Wednesday in a major operation to stop the insurgents from infiltrating the Afghan capital from the south and clear the way for the first sustained international aid effort in this remote valley.
Supported by about 200 Afghan soldiers and their French army trainers, 200 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., encountered no resistance.
U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan are scrambling to beat back the Taliban insurgency by bolstering U.S. forces, delivering long-promised humanitarian and reconstruction projects, girding for a surge in violence with the end of winter and preparing for the country's second democratic presidential election in August.
The reactions to the arrival of the U.S.-led force Wednesday, however, ranged from skepticism to hostility. "Down To America" dabbed in whitewash greeted the U.S. column as it pushed into the valley from the American base in Maydan Shahr, the capital of Wardak Province.
Icy-eyed villagers stared as towering Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored trucks and other vehicles towing trailers, generators and guns, protected by two helicopter gunships and two A-10 "tank-buster" jets, plowed parts of the valley's main track into knee-high furrows of dense mud. The convoy halted traffic for hours and twice churned slowly through the main bazaar, filling the crisp winter air with choking clouds of diesel fumes.
"Everything was okay before they came here," growled Mohammad Sharif as he sat in his dingy confectionery shop glaring at the American vehicles stopped outside. "We don't want them to come here. We haven't needed them for 1,000 years. This is our country."
The angry comments by Sharif and others seemed to confirm assertions by U.S. officers that the valley, which is about 50 miles south of the capital, Kabul, is under firm Taliban control, and that the guerrillas enjoy strong support among the district's ethnic Pashtuns, who constitute 30 percent of the Jalrez District's impoverished population of about 66,000.
"This is where key leaders of the Taliban are located," said Lt. Tyjuan Campbell, of Palmetto, Fla., of Apache Company, 2nd Battalion, 82nd Infantry Regiment, as he stood outside the abandoned French-built agricultural center that he took for his headquarters.
U.S. and French officers said that Taliban explosives experts produce roadside bombs and suicide vests in the valley. The insurgents also use the area to infiltrate Kabul and launch attacks, stealing through the mountains on narrow tracks and goat paths.
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team plans to set up bases across the valley — the first U.S. presence here since the 2001 U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban — to root out the Taliban and provide the security required to start aid projects aimed at eliminating the insurgents' sanctuary.
Campbell conceded, though, that the U.S. force made no friends with its two-way, three-hour, fume-belching grind through the main bazaar's narrow lane.
"I'm pretty sure they got quite upset. We rolled right through there and rolled right back again," Campbell said as the sun set and the biting cold intensified.
Aziz Ahmad, one of several dozen drivers and passengers stalled by the convoy, at first expressed anger and resentment at the outsiders, complaining about the blockage and saying that villagers "are afraid that fighting will now start here. They are scared."
But in a glimpse of promise for the U.S. troops, Ahmad said that many residents would reconsider their views if the Americans paved the track.
"If they pave the road, that is a foundation for Afghanistan," he said. "Things will begin to change."
The valley is framed by stunning snow-covered peaks, some as high as 12,000 feet, that enclose a narrow plain of layer cake-like dried mud homes, narrow tracks, apple orchards, clear brooks and pastures.
There's no electricity; the inhabitants are desperately poor; the children are filthy, thinly clad and rheumy-eyed; and a U.S. military assessment rates the Afghan government's authority in the Jalrez District "nonexistent."
The U.S. operation began before dawn Wednesday, with helicopters flying small U.S. and Afghan Army units into positions on the sides of the valley near the main bazaar.
The main force's long column of dozens of MRAPs, armored Humvees, trucks and other vehicles was supposed to drive the 15 miles to the Jalrez Bazaar at around 40 mph. However, a partially completed Chinese-built paved road gave way to a rutted, waterlogged track that forced the armored vehicles to slow to less than 10 mph at some points.
Interrupted by frequent stops, the convoy took four hours to reach the main bazaar, passing the French-built agricultural center where it was supposed to establish a base.
Once inside the bazaar, the U.S. trucks and Humvees idled for more than 45 minutes. Men crouched on the verges, some muttering and gesturing, and infant-cradling women hidden in full-length burqas hurried by.
The convoy was forced to turn around on the narrow track on the other side of the bazaar after the troops realized that they'd passed the agricultural center. The return journey took three hours, and more than a dozen trucks and cars were forced to wait while the Americans rumbled back.
"Everybody here seems real happy, especially as we push these monsters through their town," one soldier observed over the radio.
Inside one MRAP, the already cramped space constricted by packs and portable rocket launchers, the delays brought exasperation and derision from crewmembers.
Sgt. Daniel Steciak, the vehicle chief, noted that the bunched-up vehicles made tempting targets for the Taliban.
"I'm pretty sure they know we're here," quipped Steciak, 23, of Columbia, Md.
"The element of surprise, sergeant," responded Pvt. Eli Zajghowski, 22, of Orlando, Fla.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009