Leadership is often described as the ability to get people to do what they wouldn’t normally do. Sometimes this requires a leader to push the envelope and take a stand as U.S. Army Captain William Swenson did on September 8, 2009, in Ganjgal, an insurgent-held village in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Captain Swenson, a Ranger school graduate and member of 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley, Kansas, was deployed overseas to help train Afghan border police. Captain Swenson had served in previous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Before The Storm
On this particular day, Embedded Training Team (ETT) 2-8 would go with Afghan Military and Border Police to meet with the local tribal leaders in Ganjgal, who had said that they were ready to accept the local government’s rule. Prior to that, this hotbed of insurgent activity was unwelcoming of any coalition troops. Captain Swenson had participated in the planning of this mission and was told that air support would only be available from a neighboring operation but was assured artillery fire support would be available.
At the time, Major General Stanley McCrystal had instituted new ROEs (Rules of Engagement) focused on protecting the Afghan civilians and minimizing Afghan civilian casualties. Theses ROEs included the virtual elimination of close-in fire support in population centers and strict rules of not shooting into areas with civilians. All told, the rules were a set of tight handcuffs for a military fighting in an asymmetrical environment where the enemy routinely hid in civilian villages, often using women and children as shields.
ETT 2-8 departed their base in Shakani District at 0300 hours en route to Ganjgal with 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 Afghan border guards and 13 U.S. Marine and Army trainers with the mission of searching for weapons and meeting with village elders to discuss the establishment of Afghan police patrols.
As dawn broke, the team arrived about a mile outside the village, which appeared to be rock-walled compounds perched high on slopes at the eastern end of the Ganjgal valley, 6 miles from the Pakistani border.
Captain Swenson helped coordinate security elements on the ridges of the valley’s southern and northern sides. The main force began its mile trek into a landscape that was essentially a perfect ambush location.
As the American and Afghan column reached the village, the lights went out.
At 0530 hours, the first shots were fired at the lead element of the column. In short order, it became a full-blown gunfight. U.S. Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, one of the heroes of the battle, was quoted as saying, “Whatever we do always leaks. You can’t trust even some of their [Afghan] soldiers or officers.” It’s been reported that several soldiers and Marines witnessed Afghan women and children providing ammunition to the insurgents.
As the battle raged on, the column’s security elements started firing at the insurgents from their posts. At 0550 hours, Capt. Swenson, who was helping train the Afghan Border Police, began calling for air support or artillery fire from a unit of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division’s Tactical Operations Center (TOC). The reply was that no helicopters were available.
It’s been reported that Capt. Swenson replied, “This is unbelievable. We have a platoon out there and we’ve got no Hotel Echo [high-explosive artillery shells]. We’re pinned down.”
With local support, the enemy rained hell on the U.S. and Afghan troops who were in the area because local tribesmen said they were ready for peace.
At approximately 0600 hours, Capt. Swenson and Lt. Fabayo agreed that it was time to pull back and radioed for artillery to fire smoke rounds to mask the retreat. Swenson was told, “They don’t have any smoke. They only have Willy Pete [white phosphorus rounds].”
Fifty minutes later, the “Willy Pete” artillery shells landed around the valley and smoke began to cover parts of the valley, allowing some cover for the pinned down column. Capt. Swenson and Lt. Fabayo began supplying covering fire so elements of the column could evacuate their position.
At approximately 0700 hours, when they got to a slightly better position, Lt. Fabayo continued to supply suppressive fire while Capt. Swenson applied aid to wounded soldiers with one hand and called in insurgents’ positions to two U.S. helicopters that finally had arrived. The helicopters helped ease the enemy’s fire and allowed the retreating column to move again.