Insurgents find one route into Afghanistan closed
Editor's note: Our Marlborough reporter Doug Grindle has returned to the Middle East, embedded with U.S. soldiers. He filed this report from Afghanistan. Spira District, Khost Province, eastern Afghanistan – One of the most notorious infiltration routes used by insurgents to cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan is now closed.
Elements of A Company, 1-503rd Parachute Infantry Battalion, have been sitting in a fortified Afghan compound in this border district for over two weeks. They are armed with M4 carbines, Mk 19 grenade launchers, machine guns and radios for calling in Air Force planes to drop bombs. The border is about a kilometer or so to the east. Behind their little camp, a gully leads over a couple of hills and into Pakistan. Along this route and through this same compound, al Qaeda and the Taliban have been pushing men and supplies into Afghanistan for years. Now the soldiers are here and the route is closed.
"They were moving through pretty regularly until we moved into the combat outpost over here," Sgt. Michael Gorman said. "We pretty much disrupted their movement going back and forth across the border. They're pretty aggravated with us right now."
The soldiers patrol regularly in the hills around their combat outpost, pushing up into the hills, setting ambushes and searching for any signs of the enemy slipping across the border. The steady flow of insurgents to and from Pakistan has become a trickle, and soldiers hope to cut off even that.
It is mid-afternoon as a patrol puff s up a hillside. This is the third hillside they have climbed today. Loose rock is strewn over crumbly dirt, thorn bushes pull at clothing and equipment, the slopes are steep and high, the sun is out and the sweat rolls off the men in 75 degree heat.
Soldiers set ambushes by night and patrol the hills by day. They have been to this valley in previous months, but never for much longer than a single day, and they have never set up an outpost like this before. In this area the enemy knows the ground better than they do. That is a dangerous thing when the steep slopes and ragged bushes cut visibility to almost nothing. It is easy to stumble across an enemy at close quarters.
But by using high technology and stealthy tactics, the soldiers hope to maintain the upper hand. They flew in by helicopter, totally surprising the enemy, who generally expects Americans to use their heavily armored Humvees whenever possible. Substituting armor for speed allowed the soldiers to gain the initiative, which they say they have held ever since arriving in early March.
The patrols are designed to keep the enemy off balance. But that doesn't mean it's an easy job. Each soldier carries an armored vest that weighs more than 25 pounds. Each also carries ammunition, water and other equipment, and they often tote 60 pounds of gear up the hills and back down again, looking for the enemy.
"They are really hard to find in these hills. They can move a lot faster than us. We have a lot of equipment," Spc. Matthew Thomas said. "They are kind of like a ghost in the hills."
The soldiers also spend a lot of their time visiting the local villages. Some are friendlier than others. Three villages lie less than a mile from the outpost. One, named Writse, is unfriendly. It lies right against the border and makes a good living from insurgents passing through. Another, Sarakunda, is much friendlier. But soldiers concede the locals will remain friendly only if they believe the security forces will not depart suddenly, leaving them to the insurgents again.
So the soldiers aim to show a constant presence of the Afghan government, using a mix of Afghan soldiers, provincial officials or both.
Once the villagers start to see that combination, along with improved security, the soldiers say, they will start to turn toward the government and against the insurgents who are historically strong in this area.
"Once we turn the tide on the enemy and [the locals] realize they are not going to be able to utilize this area any more, you're going to see the locals turning them in because they realize [the insurgents] don't have anything to offer them," said Capt. Chris Hammonds, the company commander.
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