"But because we've operated as an economy of force here, it's relative strength. So it's going to take us some time to continue to build up capacity and move forward… We could absolutely use more force here: [Afghan Army], [Afghan police], all coalition types. We just don't have enough right now. So what we're doing is as we build force [across the country], we'll increase it [here]. And as we reprioritize from other areas. But we have other priorities right now. And you have to follow your priorities, or you're not strong anywhere."
During the patrol, the distinct sound of AK-47s could be heard from less than a mile away. Insurgents were apparently targeting McChrystal's helicopters, which flew over the entire patrol. He was nonplussed. He shrugged his shoulders and joked, "Someone's shooting at someone!"
Around the same time, an unmanned predator drone circled above and spotted what were believed to be eight insurgents in a nearby building, though their identities were never confirmed.
Things in Bula Murghab are better than they were just a few months ago, thanks to Marine special forces and the men of the 82nd Airborne's 1st battalion who captured a key objective over New Year's: the high ground that overlooks the Bula Murghab valley.
"Six months ago this was an old Russian fighting position. Nothing but a hilltop and sand and grass," says Staff Sgt. Jason Holland, who now lives on the hilltop in what is likely one of the most spartan American bases in Afghanistan.
Twelve Americans, nine Italians, and 10 Afghans share a couple of wooden rooms surrounded by cement barriers. They have a beautiful view, but not many amenities. Half sleep on mattresses on the floor just inches from each other, and there is no running water. Thanks to the Italians, a generator supplies power about 10 hours a day.
The nearly weeklong fight for the hilltop was well worth it, McChrystal told the men. Before seizing what the troops call Pathfinder, the U.S. soldiers were regularly getting shot at just a few hundred feet from their nearby base. Now, the local bazaar is beginning to fill with shop owners, at least during the day.
"We virtually just cut the Taliban supply lines right down the center of the valley, pretty much restricting their movement," Holland said, overlooking a massive valley while sitting on a sandbag not far from the front door to the room the Americans and Italians share. "Any drug trade or weapons trafficking, they can't do anymore."
The operation to seize the hilltop grew, in part, out of death. In November, two 1st battalion soldiers drowned in the river that bisects the valley. The U.S. launched massive operations to recover their bodies, and that allowed them to interact with local residents who they hadn't spoken with in the past.
That "created a crack in what had been sort of solid wall of resistance between the two sides," McChrystal said.