LOYA GORIGAH, Afghanistan — Army Chinook helicopters whipped up a fury on a desolate peak in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan as American soldiers, in war paint and with camouflage netting over their helmets, scrambled down the rear ramp in the predawn light.
They plunged into the scrub on a mission to uncover hidden weapons and arrest members of a bomb-making team and other insurgents who'd been terrorizing local villages. Two platoons from Combat Company of the 10th Mountain Division's 1-32 Brigade, with a platoon of Afghan soldiers, also were to make contact with local elders, log their identities and gain their cooperation against the Taliban.
Sniper teams crawled through the matted grass to take up positions above a string of Afghan hamlets beneath a snow-capped peak in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, a sanctuary for al Qaida and other militant Islamic groups less than a mile from the border with Pakistan's tribal belt.
A key element was missing, however. As the troops descended, the sun rose, illuminating the approaching Americans and eliminating any chance of surprise. As they marched down the goat path that mission planners had named "Route Achilles," officers and soldiers grumbled about the timing of their assault.
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"The Afghans saw us coming down the mountain from the second we were here," said Lt. Jake Kerr, 25, of Lake Placid, N.Y. "Anyone who was going to run would have run and hidden themselves before we knew it."
The airborne assault had been three weeks in the making; it employed Army Apache attack helicopters and Air Force F-15 jets to provide air cover, and it cost millions of dollars. More than anything, however, the mission illuminated the hurdles the U.S. military is facing as it tries to move from a war focused on killing the enemy to a counterinsurgency campaign based on securing the population — mountain-to-mountain and valley-to-valley — in a land of 40,000 villages.
The first hurdle is a lack of detailed knowledge of the area. The10th Mountain forces, from Fort Drum, N.Y., have been charged with plugging the Taliban and al Qaida infiltration routes from Pakistan, but this area and much of the rest of the country remains what the military calls a "black hole."
No U.S. troops had ever visited the village of Loya Gorigah, where the 10th Mountain soldiers were headed, but a pre-operation briefing described the hamlets there as a "staging and cache area" for insurgents streaming into Afghanistan from Pakistan.
"We believe they have been there this year, but we do not have information on their current location," said Maj. Andy Knight, 32, of Ann Arbor, Mich., pointing to footprints in the snow on Kargha Pass, at 8,000 feet elevation, a low point on a mountain ridge.
Another hurdle is the U.S. military's practice of going in with some of the most sophisticated weapons in the world and the heaviest backpacks, when lighter might work better.
It took the 10th Mountain soldiers nearly two hours to make a descent that usually takes Afghans 20 minutes. Each Combat Company soldier carried between 80 and 130 pounds on his back. Inexperienced Afghan soldiers, unsure of the route, caused further delays, losing their way and threatening to gun down an unarmed shepherd. For some, "Route Achilles" was beginning to look like Route Achilles Heel.
It wasn't long before U.S. soldiers with binoculars spotted three men on foot descending a snowy trail across the valley. Soon, however, the men had slipped behind trees, possibly into a cave. A soldier in "Dawg Platoon" soon saw a man in a black cloak with an AK-47 rifle dodge behind a stone wall.
Still another challenge is the inherent conflict between fighting a deadly enemy and winning the hearts of the local villagers with whom the enemy lives. Some officers wondered aloud if a large airborne assault was appropriate for the tiny villages they were about to enter.
"This place is way too big to search in its entirety," Kerr told his team. The mission quickly morphed into an odd combination of "get-to-know the villagers" and a somewhat less sociable attempt to "control and catalogue military-age males."
Some 30 Afghan men responded when 10th Mountain troops asked on the spot for elders to gather. As they sat with the Americans for tea, Kerr told them that the Afghan soldiers would like to take their names and photograph them. Not all of them were pleased at that prospect.
One man, Malek Malang, resisted having his photo taken. Although they had only circumstantial evidence, U.S. officers suspected him of collaborating in an attempted roadside bombing. Malang finally relented, Kerr said, when "I put him on the spot" in front of his peers.
The Afghan elders offered lunch, but suspicion hung in the air. The unstated question was what these strange foreigners in their flying machines would offer in return for the village's cooperation.
As he sat with the villagers, Kerr heard conflicting messages about why he'd seen so many dug-in fighting positions on his way into the village, and why a man in a black cloak was still up on the mountaintop dodging boulders and pointing a rifle at the American overwatch platoon.
Village elders said the villagers had no arms and, instead, fought off the Taliban with "sticks and stones."
Kerr said he doubted that. He thought that some of the elders, many of them two and three times his age, were loyal to the anti-American insurgency, but he did his best to disguise his suspicions.
"I understand their predicament," he said. "They don't get respect from their Afghan neighbors, and then they get the Taliban coming over the border and threatening and shooting at them."
Despite his stated sympathy, Kerr hesitated to offer the elders any humanitarian aid projects. His commanding officer earlier had told him that it was too hard to monitor aid projects in such remote places, anyway, and that the "U.S. government doesn't want to throw money away."
So for now, the villagers of Loya Gorigah had to content themselves with helping the American soldiers meander about their wheat fields in search of bomb-making materials, large Russian machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. They found nothing.
The battalion planning officer refused to say the mission was a failure, but he called it "an inappropriate allocation of resources" in a war that demands "an economy of force."
Another officer just chalked it up to "bad intell."
Dereck Hogan, the State Department representative for the province, said in an interview that NATO's Provincial Reconstruction Team was keen to "push the envelope" further and work better with the 10th Mountain soldiers to reach out to isolated villages such as Loya Gorigah.
"Just getting out there, one village at a time, the 10th Mountain is bringing back information that we will be able use to implement projects," said Hogan, 35, a Pittsburgh native who recently signed on to work on a team of special assistants to U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke. "Clearly our efforts to secure Afghanistan must shift in the direction of a village-by-village approach. We are now trying hard to build teams of American experts to manage the effort, down at the district and village level."
Pedro Torrez, a farmer from Pomona, Calif., and an Agriculture Department official who's also based in Kunar province, said he was keen to set foot in more remote villages to assist with vineyards, fruit orchards and honey bee production.
American commanders said they'd achieved their goal.
"We have disrupted the enemy's patterns by showing them that we are not afraid to stick our noses in their business," said Maj. Knight, who also defended a decision to land in the daylight because postponing the mission until pilots were available at night probably would have meant a two to three week delay, and the likelihood that the Taliban in Loya Gorigah would have been "far more substantial," and, thus, potentially more dangerous.
Just as U.S. forces prepared to march back up the mountain, U.S. intercepts of suspected enemy radio chatter grew alarming.
"They are getting into position to attack us," Lt. Kerr warned his men. A week earlier, similar chatter had ended in a major firefight for his platoon.
Two F-15s were now overhead, part of more than 24 hours of dedicated air support for the mission. All that was left was a long night on the mountaintop, waiting to be picked back up by four Chinooks.
As the stars twinkled overhead and F-15s bisected the Milky Way, the lilting voice of a female pilot came over the radio, reassuring the anxious American infantrymen below that she had enough big bombs to blast every enemy approach route.
"I simply love that chick," whispered a lieutenant, bedded down for the night.
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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