Capt. Adrian Bonenberger took a drive through the farmland of northern New York to absorb one last view of the St. Lawrence River. To drink one last cup of coffee at the Lyric Bistro in Clayton. To savor one last moment of real peace and quiet before heading to Afghanistan. For a year.
Sgt. Tamara Sullivan pulled out her cellphone charger and braced for a night of tears. She called her children in North Carolina, ages 3 and 1, and told them she would soon be going to work in a place called Afghanistan. For a year. She reminded her husband to send her their artwork. She cried, hung up, called him back and cried some more.
“I asked for him to mail me those pictures, those little sloppy ones,” she said. “I want to see what my children’s hands touched, because I won’t be able to touch them.”
These are the faces of the new American surge in Afghanistan. For the next year, the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., will be living, working and fighting in the fertile northern plains of Afghanistan, part of the additional 30,000 troops who will make up the backbone of President Obama’s plan for ending the nine-year war.
The president said last week that the strategy — which calls for securing population centers, reducing civilian casualties and strengthening the Afghan police and army — would continue despite his firing the top Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
In the increasingly restive provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan, the 1-87 will be opening a new front and waging a different kind of war. Its job will be to train the local police, secure a vital highway to Central Asia and expand the shaky writ of President Hamid Karzai’s government in the north.
The soldiers will be living with the police in mud-walled outposts and conducting daily foot patrols alongside them into contested areas. The goal is to build public support for the police — no simple task, given its reputation for corruption and ineffectiveness.
Over the course of the next year, The New York Times will be visiting the battalion to chronicle its part in the surge and explore the strains of deployment on soldiers, many fresh out of basic training, others on their fifth combat tour in nine years.
If their mission cannot succeed in the relatively stable north, the policy seems unlikely to work anywhere in Afghanistan.
The battalion is the first large American military unit to be based in these provinces since the war began, and the troops expect to be challenged by emboldened insurgent forces that have been ambushing police checkpoints, vandalizing schools, mining roads and extorting merchants with growing regularity.
Lt. Col. Russell Lewis, the battalion commander, said that for most of the war, troops with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had not seriously contested Taliban-controlled areas in the north. That, he said, is about to change.
The battalion, which began moving to Afghanistan in March, will be joined by late summer by an aviation brigade with transport and assault helicopters that will allow them to conduct missions deep into insurgent strongholds, which fuels talk of a possible offensive by fall.
“It will get hotter before it gets better,” Colonel Lewis said.
The deployment will also test the emotional mettle of soldiers and their families. Across eight time zones and 6,500 miles, linked by the fragile threads of the Internet and cellular technology, those soldiers will counsel children, comfort parents, manage marriages and mourn deaths back home, even as they struggle with loneliness, boredom and fear in Afghanistan.
They are almost all men, with a small attachment of women in noninfantry jobs. Many are begging to see combat. Others dread the prospect.
Specialist Samuel Michalik, a 24-year-old, single infantryman from Tennessee on his first deployment, offered one perspective.
“I think it’s safe to say that most people would want to see some action — they don’t want to be there and just be sitting around,” he said before the deployment. “If it’s my time to die or get injured, whatnot, I think then, God’s going to allow that. I’m at peace with that.”
Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, a 35-year-old single parent of two boys from Wisconsin, also on his first deployment, voiced a different view.
“If we are here for a year and don’t fire one round, I’m happy,” the sergeant said. “I’ve got two boys waiting for me that I want to go back home and be a dad to.”