The American Green Berets were seated around a long, plywood table at their base when they spotted the Taliban counterattack on their screens.
The burly Americans were working on computers, drinking coffee and munching on chips and peanut butter cookies. Their team leader answered an ever-ringing phone, giving his superiors updates on an Afghan commando mission in the mountains just north of Afghanistan's Kandahar Airfield.
The Green Berets could see the progress of the mission on a massive screen on the wall — live video sent by an American drone. The Afghan commandos had opened fire on the Taliban, and they had fired back. An American AH-64 Apache attack helicopter sliced down to shred the defenders. Many scattered.
Then, the American troops here spotted about two-dozen men — black-and-white figures on their monitors — carrying rifles and machine guns, moving along a dry riverbed, parallel to the Afghan commandos.
The American soldiers discussed how to respond: Was there an armed drone available to release a Hellfire missile? Or an AC-130 Spooky gunship on hand, with its heavy artillery?
But the Taliban answered the question on their own: When the men emerged from the woods, they had no weapons — knowing that meant the Americans could not fire.
"Once we lose positive identification of the enemy, it is our policy not to strike, because our No. 1 concern is civilian casualties," said the Special Forces team leader. NPR was permitted to observe the operation under ground rules that included not identifying him by name.
The American and Afghan troops wanted to land a more decisive blow against the Taliban, but they said they tried to keep things in perspective.
"Not every mission is going to have those stats you look for — enemy killed in action, enemy wounded in action," the team leader said. "It really is about the overall objective. And so it may seem frustrating, because obviously, at all points, you want to engage the enemy. But as long as the mission is accomplished, it is good for everybody."
On this recent night in Afghanistan, commanders said the mission was accomplished. The Afghan special operations raid, American drone strikes and an Afghan army clearing operation helped push Taliban fighters from a town blocking a key highway. The insurgents had stopped aid shipments from getting through for nearly a month, and with them pushed out of town, the trucks could move again at last.
American officials point to the progress the Afghan forces have made in handling these kinds of operations.
Afghan special operations Capt. Shoaib — NPR isn't including his last name because of safety concerns — led the mission, and helped plan the raid in a sandbox using Styrofoam blocks for buildings and toothpicks for trees. He and his men practiced here at the Kandahar base to line up and fan out the way they did when they went into action.
The Afghans are conducting operations on their own, but they still need American air power for the more challenging ones — to take them into the fight, provide the invaluable overhead surveillance and smash their opponents. The Afghans are years away from being able to conduct this kind of operation on their own, if they ever can.
And the other factors in Afghanistan aren't standing still. The mountainous district of Shah Wali Kot, where Capt. Shoaib and his troops attacked, has long been an open sore. Australian special operators battled the Taliban there six years ago in heavy fighting, but the insurgents have come back.
And what's worse is that a recent internal Afghan power struggle meant that dozens of police officers abandoned their checkpoints along the highway.
"We received information that 120 sentries, [all] at the same time, went to the Taliban," Capt. Shoaib told NPR. "They went with their weapons, ammunition, equipment — everything."
The Taliban's strategy is to control the highways that run from Helmand province in the west — home to Afghanistan's lucrative crop of opium poppy — all the way east to the Taliban's headquarters in Pakistan. American commanders have nicknamed this route "the jet stream," and have watched as insurgents have set about grabbing territory to put it together.
If the Taliban could control the whole route, they likely could threaten Kandahar, the largest city in the south and the Taliban's informal capital when it ruled Afghanistan.
Capt. Shoaib's raid helped break the chain, but both he and the Americans expect he'll have to launch many more to keep the Taliban on their heels.
"We will go 10 times," he said. "We will go 20 times — until we make it happen."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
On a recent night, dozens of elite Afghan commandos climbed aboard U.S. military helicopters at a base in Kandahar. They flew north to the mountains to take on entrenched Taliban fighters. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, this mission reflects the challenges facing Afghan troops, the limits of American power and the resilience of the Taliban.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The village is spread out before them - or at least a model of the village they'll enter. Small Styrofoam blocks are numbered and represent buildings and homes. There are toothpick trees, all set on a large, rectangular sandbox.
SHOAIB: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: That's Commando Captain Shoaib. He'll lead the mission for the commandos clustered around him. The mission is code named Zamari 416. Zamari is Pashtu for lion, the name of this commando unit. The captain says the mission is to push the Taliban out of a village that borders a highway connecting a major city. The Taliban are not letting any food trucks pass. Thousands of families are running low on supplies.
SHOAIB: The goal of the mission was to clear the blocked highway - Kandahar-Uruzgan highway. And there is a big convoy been stuck for 28 days. And let that convoy to cross.
BOWMAN: The district of Shah Wali Kot has long been an open sore. Six years ago, Australian commandos fought the Taliban there. Now the Taliban has slipped back in. What's worse, a recent political power struggle led dozens of police to abandon their checkpoints along the highway. The Taliban took control.
SHOAIB: In two hours we received information that 120 centuries at the same time, they went to Taliban. They went with their weapons, ammunition, equipment - everything.
BOWMAN: The commandos line up in a wide gravel lot. They fan out in two directions, just as they will when they enter the village and search for the Taliban.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)
BOWMAN: Ten hours later, in the darkness, they're in full combat gear on the tarmac, climbing aboard massive American CH-47 Chinook helicopters. They lift off and bank north. The lights of Kandahar soon give way to a blanket of stars and the silhouettes of the mountains. In less than an hour, they adjust their night-vision goggles, grab their weapons and scramble out.
SHOAIB: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: The Taliban shoot at the shadowy figures rushing toward them. The commandos unleash a barrage.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)
BOWMAN: An American Apache attack helicopter swoops in and opens fire. And the Taliban slip into the night. Back at the American base, Green Berets watch it all live via a drone overhead. They are clustered around a long, plywood table. Big, bearded men working on computers and munching on snacks. A massive screen on the wall shows drone footage of Captain Shoaib's mission. The Taliban, nearly two dozen of them, move along a dry riverbed - grainy, black and white figures on the video stream. Some carry AK-47s. At least one has a machine gun.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When we were watching the guys run across the Wadi, the analysts were positively identifying weapons, RPGs, PKMs, AK-47s.
BOWMAN: That's the Green Beret team leader. For security reasons, we can't use his name.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So as I'm passing this information, it was assessed that these were enemy personnel. But they weren't looking to engage. They were looking to flee the area.
BOWMAN: The Taliban strategy is to control the highways from Helmand Province in the West - where poppies are turned into opium for a profit - all the way east to Pakistan, where the Taliban is based. The Americans call this long route the jet stream. The Taliban already has grabbed some new territory in Helmand. Now capturing this eastern area around Shah Wali Kot in Kandahar Province will help connect the two areas. If the Taliban can take the whole jet stream, they could threaten Kandahar, the South's largest city.
The Green Beret team sees the Taliban move along a tree line, heading right toward Captain Shoaib and his men. They get ready to fire, maybe using an armed drone, maybe an AC-130 gunship. But suddenly, the Taliban slip into the trees. Again, the team leader.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Once we lose positive identification of the enemy, it's our policy not to strike because our number one concern is civilian casualties.
(SOUNDBITE OF MORTAR SHOTS)
BOWMAN: So Captain Shoaib lobs some mortars into the trees to flush out the Taliban and take a chance at hitting them. But when they emerge, they are not carrying any weapons. Since there is no clear threat, the Americans cannot fire from the sky. After six hours, the helicopters land and take the commandos away.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not every mission is going to have those stats that you look for of enemy killed in action, enemy wounded in action. It's really about the overall objective. And so it may seem frustrating because obviously at all points you want to engage the enemy. But as long as the mission is accomplished, it's good for everybody.
BOWMAN: For his part, Captain Shoaib calls the mission a success, too. Between the commando raid, American drone strikes and a clearing operation by the Afghan Army, the food trucks will soon be able to make it up to the major city in the North. And two things are clear from this mission - the Afghans still need American air support until they can develop - over the coming years - their own air force. And Captain Shoaib will once again head north to confront the Taliban who slipped away.
SHOAIB: We will go 10 times. We will go 20 times to make it happen.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.