U.S. Launches Attack in East Afghanistan

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 6, 2006; 2:25 PM

KANDAGAL, Afghanistan -- U.S. troops on Wednesday launched a fearsome barrage of artillery and rockets into a mountainous militant stronghold in eastern Afghanistan where they suffered their deadliest combat loss more than a year ago.

Despite high casualties suffered by Taliban-led militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and tough military action to root them out, insurgents still pose as deadly a threat as ever to the scores of troops from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division deployed near the Pakistan border.

No militant casualty figures were immediately available from the heavy bombardment that sent plumes of smoke rising over the tops of pine tree-forested mountain ranges.

The barrage was aimed at locations some three miles deep into the Korangal Valley, where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have set off roadside bombings and staged ambushes targeting U.S. and Afghan forces operating in the region.

"We have had nonstop contact for several days and the enemy is on the run," said Staff Sgt. William Wilkinson, 36, of Charlotte, N.C., who heads a team firing mortars toward militant positions. "We have cut them off a couple of times and they are not doing as well as they thought they would."

The Korangal Valley was the scene of a June 28, 2005, ambush by militants of a four-man team of Navy SEALs, three of whom were killed. The fourth was rescued days later.

A U.S. helicopter sent to find the SEALs crashed in the valley on that day after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing 16 American troops in the deadliest single attack on the U.S. military since the war began here in 2001.

"This is a place where the Taliban and al-Qaida have (been) known to roam freely, and right now we are putting a stop to that," Wilkinson said.

Afghan and U.S. officials have long expressed frustration that militants appear to have a free run along the rugged Pakistan border, although Pakistan is a key ally in the war on terror.

An upbeat Pakistan-Afghan summit meeting Wednesday in Kabul offered some impetus to the campaign against resurgent Islamic militants, as Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared the two nations were "brothers" and should fight terrorism together.

But given the hazardous terrain and local sympathies for jihadis, or holy warriors, it's a tough mission.

In Korangal Valley, U.S. troops are hunting the Korangali tribe, which is believed to be linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida and has been sidelined by other area tribes for its militant activities, the military said.

The echo of cannon fire rumbled through the valley overnight and during the day Wednesday as howitzers fired round after round of 155 mm artillery shells toward insurgent positions. Tracer fire lit up the nighttime sky and Apache helicopters fired rockets into hilltop positions.

Kunar's eastern border abuts the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, which has long provided a safe haven for militants operating in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida fugitives, including leader Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier.

On Tuesday, Pakistan's government signed a truce with militants they had been battling in North Waziristan.

Under the deal, tribal leaders in North Waziristan have agreed to ensure the region can't be used as a staging ground for cross-border militant attacks, a move that could lead to a reduction in Pakistan-linked violence in Kunar _ although skeptics say it may allow militants to operate more freely.

© 2006 The Associated Press