“We are the U.S. Army,” Horney thought to himself with some irritation. “We go where we want to go.”
The vehicles rumbled down a rutted dirt road, through a small village and toward a highway culvert where the Taliban had set about 40 pounds of explosives in a yellow plastic jug.
The Taliban fighter pressed a button, and a charge of electricity raced through copper wire. The highway exploded, shooting chunks of rock and dirt hundreds of feet in the air, nearly missing one of the American trucks. It shook and then lurched hard to the left.
“IED, IED, IED,” Horney’s soldiers yelled.
They called the name of the gunner, exposed in the turret. He did not respond, so they yanked on his pants. The gunner’s ears were still ringing from the blast when he ducked into the vehicle to say that he was all right.
The bomb tore a five-foot-deep hole in an already pockmarked highway that the U.S. government paid $230 million to pave and that Horney’s troops were supposed to protect. It showed that even as the U.S. military has pushed Taliban fighters from many strongholds, the enemy retains significant havens in this region only 40 miles from Kabul, the capital. And the near miss shook Horney’s confidence.
Horney, 41, broad-shouldered with brown hair shaved close to the scalp, climbed down from his truck. He suppressed a surge of anger. He was the commander of an 800-soldier battalion and needed to project an air of steadiness and calm. His troops fanned out in a defensive posture.
Horney noticed the hastily buried wire glinting in the sun and followed it until he reached the spot where the insurgent had been waiting. He approached a nearby farmer, gray-bearded and bent from a life in the fields.
Why didn’t he report the bomber to Afghan soldiers a short walk away? Horney asked.
The Taliban were everywhere, including the Afghan army, the farmer replied. “There is no one I can trust,” he insisted.
The two spoke for a few minutes about the man’s crops and his nine children. As Horney shook his hand and turned to leave, the farmer had a question. “Was anyone hurt?”
A vital highway
Horney grew up in Lebanon, Pa., where his father was a recruiter for the Army Reserve. He’s fit, with an open, friendly manner and a slight drawl — an accent best described as career Army. His twin brother is also a soldier.
The prospect of ceding any territory to the Taliban as U.S. troop numbers fall over the next year is painful to him. President Obama has mandated that the 30,000 additional troops that he ordered to Afghanistan in late 2009 return home by the end of September.