'Forgotten war' in Afghanistan taxes U.S. soldiers
By LizZ Sly
On a bare brown hillside in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers on the front lines of America's forgotten war wait, watch and wonder how long it will be before the U.S. can declare victory and go home.
From behind the safe confines of their barbed-wire enclave, the biggest enemies are boredom and the dust that whips endlessly through the little tented camp, clogging nostrils, lungs and gun barrels.
But to go "outside the wire," as the soldiers say, is to take one's life in one's hands. Lurking in the mountain ridges and valleys ringing the firebase are Taliban insurgents, and lately they have been fighting with new determination.
"We don't see them till we get out there and we don't see them till they've got the upper hand," said Cpl. Ronald Ribera, 22, of Rhode Island, who is on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. "Either they're getting smarter or they're getting trained."
Three U.S. soldiers have been killed in ambushes in the vicinity in the past month, a reminder that even though two years have passed since America launched its war against terror, the country from which Osama bin Laden plotted the Sept. 11 attacks is still far from secure.
As if to emphasize the point, a videotape apparently depicting bin Laden himself surfaced Wednesday, broadcast on Al Jazeera television. The tape, which Al Jazeera said was produced in late April or early May, appears to show the al-Qaida leader and a top deputy strolling up and down a rocky hill.
To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is nowhere near as critical as it is in Iraq. The recent deaths brought to 35 the number of Americans killed in action in Afghanistan in two years, a small fraction of the number who have died in the past six months in Iraq.
But a recent spate of attacks blamed on the Taliban, most of them aimed at Afghans, not Americans, suggests the conflict in Afghanistan risks turning into a protracted and perhaps unwinnable guerrilla war.
In the latest incident, four Afghan aid workers working for a Danish agency were ambushed and killed by suspected Taliban assailants riding motorcycles in the southeastern province of Ghazni, Afghan officials said Wednesday.
Such attacks appear designed to sabotage the international aid effort that could help win support for the central government in the mainly Pashtun south and eastern provinces, where the Taliban were strongest.
The province of Paktika, where the Orgun-E fire base is, is one such province. In recent months it has been a focus of intensified Taliban activity, targeted mainly at Afghan government forces but also at Americans. Orgun-E is one of the largest of a dozen or so similar bases strung out along the eastern border with Pakistan and across southern Afghanistan that are still engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan.
When the base was established in March 2002, the small group of Special Forces soldiers assigned to it was engaged mostly in hunting the fleeing remnants of al-Qaida. Bin Laden has frequently been reported to be hiding just across the border in Pakistan's tribal district of Waziristan, and Afghan intelligence officials believe he is still there.
The videotape of bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released on Wednesday showed them walking in terrain that could lie on either side of the rugged border area.
But U.S. troops don't have the right to cross the border into Pakistan, and these days the name of bin Laden is rarely mentioned in connection with U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
"I'm not looking for him. I don't believe he's in Afghanistan and I don't believe he's in Paktika province," said Col. Michael Howard, who is in charge of Orgun-E and of two other, smaller bases in the province.
The base has now swelled to include around 400 soldiers, including conventional forces from the 10th Mountain Division as well as a small contingent of Afghan National Army troops, along with the Special Forces. The camp has acquired an air of permanence: There are hot showers, Internet connections and satellite TV.
The soldiers' main focus now is on the rejuvenated Taliban, operating out of bases just across the border.
Howard said he is confident that America's Afghan strategy is on the right track. He points to the successes in Kabul and other cities in the north and west, where commerce is thriving and aid projects are getting under way. His goal, he said, is to try to secure Paktika province so that aid agencies can move in, and until the new Afghan army being trained by the U.S. can take over security.
"There may be a local resurgence of trouble in Paktika right now, but that doesn't mean Paktika is lost or that the Taliban is going to be coming back," he said. "It's all good and it's all headed in the right direction, but it's slow."
For some Afghans, it is too slow. In the nearby town of Orgun, a gray dustbowl of mud homes and rickety market stalls, locals complain that they are living virtually under siege. The road to the provincial capital, Sharana, a deeply rutted track that winds through steep mountains and narrow gullies, is plagued by bandits even by day; at night, Taliban guerrillas set up checkpoints and lie in wait for government forces.
It is the absence of security that poses perhaps the biggest threat to the U.S.-led effort to pacify Afghanistan. Although the guerrilla fighters pose no serious military challenge to U.S. forces, the Americans, who conduct patrols and search operations but don't police the area, can't protect locals from Taliban attacks or bandits, leading to complaints that life under the Taliban was better.
"A lot of people are saying, 'At least under the Taliban we had security,'" said Jumaa Khan, 19, a government soldier. Afghan soldiers have been the main target of Taliban attacks in the province.
The American soldiers, many of whom are back for their second tour of duty, say there is no question of losing out to the Taliban.
But they do say they find it hard to envisage the day when America's Afghan war will be over.
"So we kill Mohammed, but what about his son and his grandson? Who's to say the next generation won't turn against us?" said Ribera. "It could all kick back again in 10 years."
"It'll never be over," said Spec. Korey Jerman, 21, who is also back on his second tour of duty. "There will always be someone here who is unhappy with the Americans and wants us to leave."
[Source: Chicago Tribune, Chicago, US, 26sep03]
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