The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn't dare go in there at all. When 10th Mountain rolled into the valley in 2006, they may well have been the first military force ever to reach its southern end. They were only down there a day, but that push gave 10th Mountain some breathing room to finish building the KOP at the site of an old lumberyard three miles in. The lumberyard was not operational because the Afghan government had imposed a ban on timber exports, in large part because the timber sales were helping fund the insurgency. Out-of-work timber cutters traded their chainsaws for weapons and shot at the Americans from inside bunkers made out of the huge cedar logs they could no longer sell.
They were helped by Arab and Pakistani fighters from across the border in Bajaur Province and local militias run by a veteran of the Soviet jihad named Gulbuddin Hekma-tyar. Video made by insurgents during one attack shows tiny figures American soldiers sprinting for cover and trying to shoot back from behind ragged sandbag walls. The KOP is surrounded by high ground, and to mount an attack local fighters only had to scramble up the back sides of the ridges and pour machine-gun fire down into the compound. This is called "plunging fire," and it is hard to suppress or take cover from. The only way to fix the problem was to take over the high ground with small outposts, but those positions then also became vulnerable to attack. The battle plan for the valley became a game of tactical leapfrog that put the Americans into the village of Babiyal by the spring of 2007.
Babiyal was about half a mile south of the KOP and had ties to the insurgents, though it was not overtly hostile. American soldiers with 10th Mountain rented a residential compound from a local schoolteacher and fortified it with enormous cedar logs that locals had cut on the upper slopes of the valley. The position was named Phoenix, after the city in Arizona, and had its counterpart in Firebase Vegas across the valley. Unfortunately, all you had to do to figure out the tactical problems at Phoenix was to tilt your head upward at Table Rock. Insurgents could pound Phoenix from there and then just run down the back side of the ridge when the Americans started hitting back. One American was killed by an 88 mm recoilless round that shrieked through the narrow opening of his bunker and detonated; another was killed while running to one of the machine-gun positions during an attack. A soldier at the KOP was shot while standing at one of the piss tubes. An American contract worker was shot and wounded while taking a nap on his cot. Another soldier stumbled and drowned while wading across the Korengal River in his body armor.