MARGAH, Afghanistan — The gunshot sounded like splitting wood. The American paratroopers, scattered across the hills of this rough border town in eastern Paktika province, dove for cover behind rocks, mud walls and irrigation ditches. A few seconds later, they trained their weapons on their attackers’ location.
The ensuing firefight — pitting the soldiers of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment plus their attached Afghan troops against a small band of Taliban fighters — was the climax to a suspense story told in reverse on April 8. The Americans’ 13-hour patrol began with a brief, intense gunfight then trailed off in mystery and ambiguity amid the unforgiving terrain and unfamiliar local culture in one of Afghanistan’s most strategic provinces.
It’s an exaggeration to say that Fox Company’s roughly 100 soldiers and their Afghan National Army (ANA) comrades are all alone in Margah. But not by much. Combat Outpost Margah — a football-field-size perimeter dotted with sandbags, plywood huts and earthen Hesco barriers — huddles under a hilltop observation post on a plain outside of town.
The base is resupplied by helicopter. The only vehicles that routinely leave the dirt-and-razor-wire walls are the tricked-out pickup trucks belonging to the co-located Afghan National Army unit. From COP Margah, small American patrols march into the countryside or drop in by helicopter, in a last-ditch effort by NATO to intercept insurgents sneaking across the border with Pakistan.
It’s dirty, difficult work in dangerous conditions. No Fox Company soldiers have died at COP Margah — but not for a lack of Taliban trying. One October assault on the base left the 92 Taliban dead and the overrun observation post in ruins. A two-day, helicopter-borne reconnaissance patrol the first week of April was targeted by rocket-firing insurgents.
Leading the April 8 patrols, 1st Lt. Sean McCune hadn’t meant to confront insurgents. He simply wanted to quietly gather information. Fox Company’s 2nd and 3rd Platoons would march — hopefully unseen — several miles over flower-speckled mountains, across rocky riverbeds and through the narrow mud corridors of a medieval Afghan village called Baqer Kheyl.