|On patrol in the Afghan mountains
By Philip Smucker
COMBAT OUTPOST MONTI, Asmar, Afghanistan - Deputy Commander Abdullah wants to
show his American colleagues that - after all these years - he can still shoot
straight with a bazooka.
In the twilight, against the backdrop of a snowy pass at 2,700 meters, he takes
aim at a mountain side and unleashes a rocket that fires out of a shoulder tube
with a deafening thunder, echoing across the terraced green valley below.
The United States forces from the 10th Mountain Division cheer as the old
warrior strokes his long beard, dyed red to hide the gray, and smiles broadly
at his handy work.
Abdullah, who once fought the Soviets in the 1980s from the same sanctuaries in
Pakistan now used by the Taliban, other guerrilla groups and al-Qaeda, has an
unlikely counterpart in the fight this spring. He is Lieutenant Jake Kerr, a
steely-eyed redhead and a 2007 graduate in "counter-insurgency studies" from
West Point. Kerr's fighters are amused by the jovial, hashish-smoking Afghans,
who stand with them on one of the world's most dangerous of frontlines.
They swap intelligence, gun secrets and air assets even as the fighting has
already begun to heat up opposite the Bajaur and Swat regions of Pakistan.
Pakistan's own US-backed army has all but abandoned the border areas to Islamic
insurgents through "peace deals" that Western officials say are tantamount to
Down in a nearby valley, Lieutenant Colonel Frederick O'Donnell, who commands
the 10th Mountain Division's 1-32 infantry battalion out of Fort Drum, New
York, is not hiding his strategy from the insurgents.
"We are trying to flood the zone on this side of the border and move into areas
where they are not," he said. "This border area is the center for insurgent
math and it has multiple foci." North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and
US forces are only now attempting to seize the high mountain passes that have
fueled a growing insurgency inside Afghanistan since the Iraq War started
leaching crucial US military resources in 2003.
There is a growing understanding in the NATO and US high command circles now,
however, that as long as the insurgents can keep their supply lines open, even
the best of Afghan and Western coalition "nation building" efforts are likely
to collapse in the long run.
To that end, the US Army's 1st Infantry Division is scaling cliffs and remote
trails along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, abandoning some bases
and building new outposts. New US positions often provide line of sight and
fire towards the border crossings. Small 10th Mountain units, like that of
Kerr, often set up overnight camps with Afghan colleagues in the police and
"Our Afghan colleagues have assisted us with information on infiltration as
well as the ties going into Pakistan," said Kerr. "We are getting a picture of
how the bad guys operate and where they slip into Afghanistan." Just wading
through the layers of intrigue between warlords, government administrators and
insurgents requires hours of tea drinking, chatting and final analysis every
Along with Afghan allies, including the Border Police and the Afghan Army, US
forces are determined to slice into insurgent supply lines, some of them mere
goat paths through the alpine terrain. In Kunar Province alone, the number of
US troops has been bolstered by 200% in the past two years, more so this year
because of a "mini-surge" by the 10th Mountain Division, which commands key
border posts here.
Their effort is part of a White House and Pentagon-sanctioned injection of
17,000 fresh troops into Afghanistan, a figure that will almost quadruple the
initial US ground presence here in 2002.
Lieutenant Colonel O'Donnell displayed a precise aerial photograph of a column
of men of fighting age crossing in knee deep snow from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
Bulky clothing made it unclear if the men were smuggling in weapons. "They are
too savvy to fire at our helicopters when we pass overhead and we believe they
often move men and arms in at different border crossings so as to avoid
detection," he said. The US military will rarely bomb a column of fighters
without knowing precisely who they are and what arms they have stored.
Lurking in the shadows, literally right across the border, is Osama bin Laden
and his vast al-Qaeda network, which has stepped up its own efforts to bolster
the Afghan insurgency. "Al-Qaeda is an important force multiplier for the
Taliban and its allies," said Seth Jones, an American counter-insurgency expert
and the author of the forthcoming book, In the Graveyard of Empires (W W
He said that al-Qaeda has assisted with insurgent camps inside Pakistan, many
of which consist of large courtyards in adobe homes, which serve as education
and weapons training centers.
Back along the border, even as O'Donnell speaks with a Western reporter, his
men and women are dodging 107mm rockets fired from just inside Afghanistan. The
rockets come whirring over the tan tents spread out in a parched valley as 10th
Mountain soldiers dive for bomb shelters, where they often spend hours on end
smoking and talking. Most of the rockets miss their targets but this week one
hit unsuspecting new arrivals and sent two intelligence officers whipping back
out of camp in medivac helicopters.
It is a game of cat and mouse that insurgents relish playing against the
world's most powerful military. O'Donnell's intelligence officers know the
insurgents that are firing on them down to the first and last name and how many
rockets they have slipped into Afghanistan on any one day. Oddly, that
information has not been enough to pinpoint the culprits, who have been working
the same stretch of the border for at least three years.
"These guys are not living in caves," said one US military intelligence
officer. "We simply can't distinguish them because they are co-mingling with
the local population."
Beyond the sand bags and barbed wire of remote outposts like those overseen by
the Afghan Border Police and Kerr, Afghan civilians still live in fear of
insurgents that pass through their villages in the dead of night and demand
their silence. Single families cannot prevent the guerrilla movements and
informing on them risks severe punishment, even execution.
Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and
the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The
Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004). He is currently writing My
Brother, My Enemy, a book about America and the battle of ideas in the
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