GIs hunt al-Qaida in Afghan mountains
By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press WriterSun Sep 10, 5:29 PM ET
At night, the mountains glow from artillery strikes. By day, gunbattles echo down the valley. Five years after the Sept. 11 attack, Americans are battling al-Qaida militants in this remote area where the U.S. military says the group hatched the terror plot.
Only about 100 hard-core Afghan, Arab and Pakistani insurgents operate in the Korangal Valley, but this is where the U.S. last year suffered its worst combat loss in Afghanistan and where the military believes at least second-tier al-Qaida leaders still hide and plan attacks.
Many of the U.S. soldiers here see their offensive as a chance to avenge the assault on America, and to calm a hot bed of the Afghan insurgency.
“From all the areas we have been through, this one is the most active,” said Capt. Michael Schmidt of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y.
“There are a lot of bad guys in this valley,” the 30-year-old Marylander added, his M-16 assault rifle resting in the carved out hole of a bunker overlooking a village where U.S. troops think they killed at least two insurgents Sunday.
At the end of August, the U.S. Army launched Operation Big Northern Wind seeking to wipe out militants in Kunar province’s Korangal Valley and expand the control of the Afghan government — part of a drive by 20,000 coalition soldiers to secure the volatile frontier with Pakistan.
The drive comes amid Afghanistan’s worst violence since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime at the end of 2001 for giving haven to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida training bases.
Near the main southern city of Kandahar, a newly deployed NATO force is waging war on a resurgent Taliban. The alliance said air strikes and artillery killed 94 militants overnight and early Sunday, pushing the reported toll from the 9-day-old offensive past 420 — probably the most intense military confrontation in Afghanistan in nearly five years.
Two U.S.-led coalition soldiers also died in combat in the south late Saturday. Five NATO soldiers and 14 British crew on a reconnaissance plane died there earlier in the week.
Also Sunday, a suicide bombing claimed by the Taliban killed the governor of eastern Paktia province, and the U.S. military warned a suicide bombing cell had set up in Kabul to target foreign troops. A suicide bombing Friday killed 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers, near the U.S. Embassy.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that the war has been a boon for the world, shutting down al-Qaida camps that had trained thousands of terrorists, unseating the Taliban’s puritanical Islamic regime and bringing democracy to the Afghanistan.
But Cheney also cautioned there is a tough road ahead. “We are still in the fight in Afghanistan and we’re likely to be for some considerable period of time,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
In the Korangal Valley, the terrain is more rugged than the expansive desert around Kandahar. The U.S. Army is fighting a classic counterinsurgency of the kind last waged during the Vietnam War, said Capt. Robert Stanton, 31, of Tampa, Fla.
Lt. Col. Christopher Cavoli, 42, commander of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, said the aim is to put military pressure on the insurgents and political pressure on their supporters in villages and so extend the reach of the government in Kabul.
But for the troops of the 10th Mountain Division, this is also about punishing al-Qaida for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The people here that we are fighting are direct descendants or were at some point in time directly involved in terrorist attacks on America,” said Stanton. “We were told that Osama bin Laden and his group operated freely up here … conducted training and planning activity and that this was where the plans for Sept. 11 were hatched.”
Stanton would not give further details of the source of the information, but military intelligence officers say these high, pine-covered mountains in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province still are home to headquarters for second- and third-tier al-Qaida leaders.
They say the jetliner bombing plot reportedly foiled last month in London was probably hatched in the Aranas area of Nuristan. Pakistani intelligence officials also have claimed that an al-Qaida mastermind in eastern Afghanistan was behind the conspiracy.
The U.S. military action to snuff out the militants in the east is intense.
There are almost daily firefights with small bands of militants — who blend in quickly with civilians — and deafening barrages of artillery scorch the mountainsides, setting trees on fire.
American mortars and 155 mm howitzers blasted the hilltops Sunday above the village of Darbart after insurgents fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. soldiers searching the hamlet.
Troops traded machine gun fire for nearly an hour with the insurgents, until 120 mm mortar shells hit a house being used as a firing position by at least two militants. The two were presumed killed. No U.S. soldiers were hurt.
“The enemy up here is very well trained,” Stanton said. “They are very, very hard to find because most of them have support from some of the locals.”
The district governor has slapped sanctions on the southern section of the valley, where most of the militants are believed to come from and where foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida find sanctuary in caves, mountains huts and a dozen or so villages.
The military says the local Korangali tribe is a key link to al-Qaida and other Islamic militants operating here. The tribe adheres to the austere Wahhabi brand of Islam most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and practiced by the fugitive bin Laden and the Taliban.
The sanctions bar goods from entering or leaving the valley in hopes that will coerce the Korangali village elders into forcing the militants out or turn people against the elders.
Among the most-wanted men are three Afghans, Haji Matin, Habib Jan and Ahmed Shah.
Shah is alleged to have used a rocket-propelled grenade to shoot down a U.S. helicopter in June 2005, killing 16 Americans in the deadliest single attack on the U.S. military since the war began.
Those troops were part of a rescue effort for a four-man team of Navy SEALs caught in a militant ambush. Three SEALs were killed. The fourth was rescued days later by a farmer.
To win local support, the Army is building roads, hospitals, bridges and schools, said Cavoli, the battalion commander.
But fighting is also important to “demonstrate to the people that you can keep them safe from the enemy’s coercion — that the government can and will defeat the enemy and keep order,” he said.