The 20 men of Second Platoon move through the village single file, keeping behind trees and stone houses and going down on one knee from time to time to cover the next man down the line. The locals know what is about to happen and are staying out of sight. We are in the village of Aliabad, in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and the platoon radioman has received word that Taliban gunners are watching us and are about to open fire. Signals intelligence back at the company headquarters has been listening in on the Taliban field radios. They say the Taliban are waiting for us to leave the village before they shoot.
Below us is the Korengal River and across the valley is the dark face of the Abas Ghar ridge. The Taliban essentially own the Abas Ghar. The valley is six miles long, and the Americans have pushed halfway down its length. In 2005, Taliban fighters cornered a four-man navy-seal team that had been dropped onto the Abas Ghar, and killed three of them, then shot down the Chinook helicopter that was sent in to save them. All 16 commandos on board died.
Dusk is falling and the air has a kind of buzzing tension to it, as if it carries an electrical charge. We only have to cover 500 yards to get back to the safety of the firebase, but the route is wide open to Taliban positions across the valley, and the ground has to be crossed at a run. The soldiers have taken so much fire here that they named this stretch “the Aliabad 500.” Platoon leader Matt Piosa, a blond, soft-spoken 2...