The Enemy Among Us
August 2009

by David Bathgate

Specialist Justin Coleman drew his last breath in a cornfield on the 24th of July, 2009, in sight of the Afghan border with Pakistan. He was 21.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
Troops from Charlie Company, U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division, clear buildings in the town of Barg-e Matal, Nuristan province.
Assigned to the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, the objective Coleman shared with his unit was straightforward and clear – hold and secure Nuristan's largest town of Barg-e Matal, so that a free presidential election can take place in the province on August 20.

His was the second military casualty suffered in nearly as many weeks here. The first came when U.S. and Afghan National Army troops wrestled the town back from Taliban hands holding it tight since early July.

My embed with Charlie Company began with a nighttime helicopter landing in a marshy field and a climb to Firebase Lindstrom, a hilltop collection of mud-and-timber rooms occupied and named in honor of the first American soldier to fall during this mission on the 14th of that month.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
A suspected Taliban spy is held and blindfolded at Firebase Lindstrom, Barg-e Matal, in Nuristan province, Afghanistan.
For the next 10 days I watched daily life of soldiers and locals unfold, took cover from incoming fire, went on patrols and listened vicariously to intelligence gleaned from radio chatter between Taliban fighters led by their notorious commander, Abdul Rahman. His goal was to maneuver a re-take of the town. Charlie Company was here to make certain that didn't happen. The game was one of cat-and-mouse.

As Charlie Company held its middle ground and insurgents that on high, a third but modest element of U.S. Army Rangers and Afghan National Army troops occupied the District Center down low, near the center of a mostly deserted town.

But it was on those steep mountainsides, immediately east and west of coalition positions, where the real battle was waged. The Taliban knew the terrain well and used it consistently to best advantage. Largely gone were the ragtag days of Mullah Omar. This was a crafty and strategically adept force, carved from the mold of Al-Qaida. Charlie Company had its work cut out for it.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
U.S. Army soldiers from Charlie Company, 10th Mountain Division, clear and secure buildings in the town of Barg-e Matal, Nuristan province, Afghanistan.
From crags, caves and rock shelters above and vacant buildings below, an organized contingent of enemy spotters watched and reported our every move. Using hand-held radios, they coordinated efforts and directed fire to our positions. Task complete, they swiftly moved away.

Locals encountered them too, sometimes walking freely in the streets of Barg-e Matal. They donned stolen and copied clothing of the Afghan National Police, Border Police and Afghan National Army. They fooled few of the locals, but blended well with their environment to unknowing U.S. eyes. Villagers told of the propaganda they spoke, talked of weapons concealed by draping Afghan shawls, and related stories of intimidation and promises of reprisal once the Americans leave the area.

Attacks with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms were nearly a daily occurrence during my stay at Firebase Lindstrom. They arrived roughly like clockwork at 8:30 in the morning, near dusk or sometimes both. Sometimes these were interspersed with a day of quiet. Sometimes fire came at night, but when it did, it was always without tracer fire, making its origin difficult to determine.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
Outgoing mortars shake Firebase Lindstrom at Barg-e Matal in Nuristan province, northeastern Afghanistan.
"Know where you're shooting. Find a target before you fire," was always the directive from those in command. At Barg-e Matal, you don't waste ammo. That's how hard it is to resupply.

But if the U.S. holds any advantage here in this border area, it is in the dark of night. Heat-signature and infrared technology, night-vision scopes and goggles are something the Taliban can't escape. The insurgency is most vulnerable when the sun goes down and both sides know it.

When aggression did come, day or night, it was met with mortars, M4 and 50-caliber machine-gun fire directed at high-profile enemy positions. Sometimes the target was hit, other times the bad guys were gone when it got there. Confirmation of kills came mainly from villages or by word-of-mouth reports from farther afield.

Such intelligence is key to winning in a place like Barg-e Matal and those in charge are quick to admit it. Gathered by a small team of specially-trained military and trusted local interpreters, bits and pieces of the Taliban puzzle came from a number of sources, ranging from village elders and informants to the flow of Taliban radio chatter, vetted for its strategic value. From this, coordinates were compiled, profiles drawn and a virtual map of insurgent activity slowly came to light.

© David Bathgate/Corbis
A 2,000-pound bomb dropped from an F-15 fighter jet impacts the mountainside opposite Firebase Lindstrom at Barg-e Matal, Nuristan province, in eastern Afghanistan.
There were obstacles too. One in particular was the warren-like maze of vacant buildings near the center of town, providing hiding places for insurgents and an unobservable corridor of escape to dense agricultural cover south of town.

Add to this quagmire a police force unwilling to occupy cleared buildings through the night, making it necessary for U.S. troops to go back and repeat security sweeps again and again.

A trump card in the military deck against the Taliban at Barg-e Matal is air power. Led by F-15 fighter jets carrying bombs and missiles, A-10 "Warthog" gunships and Apache attack helicopters, the uneven battleground terrain quickly became "leveled" when "birds" came "on-station."

I was with Spc. Coleman's patrol late that afternoon as it walked into a three-way ambush. The "bait" was a couple of AK rounds fired into the air, a short distance to the south. We moved forward cautiously, securing our advance as we went. I positioned myself with soldiers just behind and out of sight of the lead group of four to which Coleman belonged. I heard the indelible barrage of AK and M4 fire, then felt the percussion and saw the flying cloud of shrapnel and debris from a pair of 500-pound bombs called in on the ridge line above. Everyone dove for cover. When quiet came, so did the call for a medic.

More likely than not, Spc. Coleman made eye contact with his assailant in that split second in July. It could be too that he'd even brushed shoulders with him on the street in Barg-e Matal at one time or another – a soldier in battle gear – just another local in "Man Jammies," as U.S. troops call the loose-fitting, traditional clothing of Afghan males. That's just how faceless – and lethal – the war in Afghanistan can oftentimes be.

© David Bathgate

David Bathgate is a freelance photojournalist represented by Corbis in Paris. He is also a contract photographer in Europe for The New York Times. Holding a Ph.D. in anthropology, his work frequently centers on other cultures, social systems different from those in the West and political situations that affect us all. For the past few years Bathgate has worked almost exclusively in the Middle East and Asia for publications such as Newsweek, Stern and Focus. This was his 10th trip to Afghanistan since 2002 and his 11th embed with U.S. and coalition forces.

More of David Bathgate's work can be seen at:, as well as at the site of his online teaching:

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