By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 2009
ON THE AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN BORDER -- Lt. Gabe Lamois's mission sounded simple: Hike down the hill to the Pakistani Frontier Corps' border post, inform the commander there that U.S. and Afghan troops were going to be moving through the area at 3 a.m., and hike back up the hill.
Before Lamois had even finished speaking, the Pakistani officer was shaking his head. "We have a lot of enemies here," Lt. Ghulam Habib explained. His jittery troops might mistake the Americans for the Taliban and shoot them.
"How about 4 a.m.?" Lamois asked.
"Impossible; 7 a.m.," Habib countered.
The haggling turned to pleading before they settled on 5:30 a.m. Lamois walked off, and the Pakistani commander, eager to demonstrate that he was in charge of the area, trained his machine guns and mortar tubes on the U.S. campsite, about 500 yards away.
"It's a strange relationship, considering we're supposed to be allies," Lamois groused.
Senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have stepped up efforts in recent months to tame the chaotic border area, used by the Taliban as a base from which to fire rockets at U.S. positions in Afghanistan and smuggle fighters and weapons. But high-level talks have not led to cooperation on the ground, where U.S. troops are struggling to overcome decades of enmity between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I am not sure why the [Pakistanis] are even here, except to stick a thumb in the eye of the Afghans," said Maj. Jason Dempsey, the No. 3 officer in the U.S. battalion on the border.
When 800 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division moved into the area in February, it marked the first large-scale U.S. presence on the border in Konar province since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. The Americans had been in place only a few weeks when the local Pakistani commander summoned them and the senior Afghan commander in the area for an emergency meeting to discuss his fears that Afghan forces, backed by U.S. air power, were planning to attack Pakistani posts.
U.S. officials said the Pakistanis were angry that the Afghans were building a fort on the ridgeline between the two countries. Pakistan has long suspected that Afghanistan wants to grab Pashtun tribal lands on its side of the border. The meeting quickly became "very ugly and emotional," said Lt. Col. Mark O'Donnell, the senior U.S. officer in the area.
The Afghan commander said he needed the new border fort to hold off Taliban fighters who had fired on his troops from Pakistani army positions a few months earlier, killing four Afghan soldiers and wounding a U.S. adviser. The Pakistani colonel denied the firefight had happened, prompting the Afghan to pull out his cellphone, on which he said he had saved a video of the battle. Before he could play it, O'Donnell interceded.
To break through the suspicion, the 10th Mountain troops planned to hold a series of meetings with their Pakistani counterparts. But they quickly realized that the rugged terrain, poor Afghan roads and a shortage of U.S. helicopters made frequent visits impossible. "On the map, the border looks like it's only three or four kilometers away," Dempsey said. "The reality is that it is a major operation for us just to get to there."
For the Taliban, it is much easier. Its fighters drive on paved Pakistani roads to the border, where they regularly launch rockets toward the U.S. bases from sites within just a few hundred yards of the Pakistani positions. The Americans respond with a barrage of artillery. In the middle of one recent U.S. counterattack, Dempsey's Nokia cellphone chirped with a text message from his Pakistani counterpart: "Sir, rounds are falling 200-300 meters short of our post. Plz adjust your fire. Thanx."
When they arrived in the area, the Americans assumed that the Pakistani troops were cooperating with their former Taliban allies. But after visiting the border posts, they realized that the terrified Frontier Corps soldiers were essentially prisoners in their posts. At the Karir Pass, the site of most of the Taliban rocket launches, the Pakistani troops are flown via helicopter to their border forts, each a cluster of small buildings made out of rocks, with no running water. Their food is also airlifted in every few weeks.
Although there is a paved road leading from their border post to a nearby Pakistani village, the Frontier Corps troops get their water from a natural spring in Afghanistan.
"We asked them why they didn't get their water from the Pakistani village," recalled Command Sgt. Maj. James Carabello. "They told us that if they went into the village that the Taliban would cut their heads off."
Every few weeks, a team of U.S. and Afghan soldiers flies up to the border area to kick over the Taliban rocket-launch sites and blow up Taliban safe houses, used to store weapons and food. In April, U.S. and Afghan troops destroyed 10 Taliban launch sites during a three-day operation. The enemy salvos slowed, only to start up again in early June. Although the Taliban fire is often inaccurate, military officials said, one well-placed shot at the main U.S. base in the valley could cause major casualties.
"We've got to figure out how to get some presence up there on the border," O'Donnell, the U.S. commander in the area, told his officers in mid-June. "We've been really lucky so far." A few days later, about 60 U.S. and Afghan soldiers climbed into two CH-47 Chinook helicopters that ferried them up to the mountains near the Karir Pass.
After seven minutes in the air -- a journey that would have taken a full day on foot -- the troops scrambled out of the back of the helicopters, taking cover behind crumbling fighting positions from an earlier war. Snow covered the nearby peaks. Narrow donkey trails and the dry ravines known as wadis, used by the Taliban forces to hide from U.S. surveillance aircraft, snaked through the rocky soil.
A team of U.S. and Afghan scouts marched off to search for Taliban bunkers and rocket-launch sites. Dempsey and Capt. Michael Harrison, who leads a 140-member infantry company in the area, headed off in the opposite direction to meet with Pakistani troops.
In late April, Dempsey and Harrison had shared a pot of tea with the Pakistani soldiers in their dark stone fort. This time, Habib, who had replaced the previous commander three weeks earlier, intercepted them on the mountainside and told them they were not permitted inside his base. He sent one of his privates to fetch a thermos of sweet green tea and wedged himself between two boulders and a scraggly tree.
"Do you know Captain Shahab at the Nawa Pass border fort?" Harrison asked brightly. "He's a good friend of mine. He gave me his cricket bat."
Habib, who wore a simple, tan army tunic and carried a rusted British rifle, nodded. In his new posting, he commanded about 30 soldiers. The Americans, trying to make conversation, asked him about his military career, his troops and his family. He replied that he had been a soldier for 17 years and had six young children back in Karachi.
"Now I know why you are at the border instead of back home," Dempsey joked, pulling out a snapshot of his children playing in the snow. One of Habib's privates studied the picture intently. "California?" he asked.
"No. It's New York," Dempsey said.
After a few minutes of awkward small talk, Habib asked the Americans why they had come to his border post, perched on a rocky cliff at a place that suggested the end of the world. "Someone has been shooting rockets at us from over on that ridge," Dempsey said, pointing to a stone outcropping about 250 yards away. "We wondered if you had seen anything."
"The Taliban are the enemy of Pakistan and the U.S. Army," Habib said.
"Do you ever see people firing rockets?"
"I don't know anything about it," Habib replied.
Later, the Americans trudged back up to their campsite and spent the rest of the day searching the surrounding mountains for the donkey trails the Taliban was using to move across the border. They kicked over a crudely built stone wall with black scorch marks at its base, a telltale sign that it was used for rocket launches, and they took pictures of a four-room building being built on an isolated ridge about 50 yards from the border. They also stumbled across simple graves dating to Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
U.S. commanders have been able to slow the flow of Taliban fighters across the 90-mile stretch of border by winning over Afghans who live in the Konar River valley, which the insurgents must traverse as they move deeper into Afghanistan. But to stop the influx entirely, U.S. officials said, they must have the support of deeply suspicious Pakistani forces. One idea is to open a border coordination center on the Afghan side where commanders from all three countries could plan operations.
"Our goal is to get everyone focused on the common enemy," Dempsey said, referring to the Taliban insurgents.
As night fell on the border, explosions from the Pakistani military's ongoing fight with the Taliban in the tribal areas boomed in the distance. Taliban radio traffic, which the fighters know the Americans intercept, chattered with threats. "Shoot the infidels," a voice said in Pashto. "Hold your position. I will be there soon," another said. But the attack never came.
Next morning, as the sun began to crest the Hindu Kush mountains, the U.S. and Afghan troops hiked down to Habib's border fort, ignoring the Pakistani officer's warning to wait until 5:30 a.m. to pass. Testily, Habib told them to detour around his outpost, prompting one of the Afghan soldiers to chamber a round in his rifle.
A U.S. adviser to the Afghan army quickly interceded. "Cut that stupid [expletive] out and keep walking," the Marine sergeant barked.