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'Eyes of the world' on soliders, Petraeus says at medal ceremony in Afghanistan

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 7:27 PM

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WILSON, AFGHANISTAN - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan awarded eight medals for valor and 11 Purple Hearts here Thursday afternoon, telling troops engaged in the month-old push in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar that the "eyes of the world" are on them.

The medals Gen. David H. Petraeus handed out were for acts in recent weeks that included giving first aid to wounded comrades during battle, providing suppressive fire to allow other soldiers to escape danger and in one case, leading 15 Afghan civilians to safety during a firefight.

Petraeus, who took command in July, said that there have already been great successes in Kandahar but that they have largely gone unrecognized.

"Nobody else has discovered what's going on here," he told journalists. "We haven't unveiled it." No media came with him to the base, 270 miles southwest of Kabul.

Although he was not scheduled to speak, the four-star general invited about 70 soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, to move forward for a pep talk before he pinned the awards on the recipients.

"Gather around front here," he said, standing in the bright sun near a long line of sand-colored cargo containers and 10-foot-high concrete barriers. While acknowledging that some people have publicly doubted the Afghanistan mission's chance of success, he told the troops: "What you are doing with our Afghan partners is historic, is extraordinary . . . You have forgotten how much the eyes of the world are on you."

Petraeus called the campaign to push Taliban fighters out of their southern Afghan stronghold the equal of any fights since 2001, including the capture of Baghdad and Fallujah in Iraq.

"What's most impressive," he added, "is that while there have been some tough losses, they have not been, quite frankly, what some of us feared."

He said he has directed a team of military historians to come to the bases in Kandahar to chronicle the campaign.

Before listening to the citations and pinning the medals on the two rows of recipients, Petraeus was briefly told about two strategies used to protect troops against mines and roadside bombs.

One is an APOBS, for anti-personnel obstacle breaching system, which is a long, fabric, explosives-filled tube that is shot into an area considered too dangerous to cross. After landing, it explodes, detonating any mines nearby and creating a safe pathway. The other is a black German shepherd that sniffs out bombs.

"Is this a pettable dog?" Petraeus asked its Marine handler. It was, so the general stroked the animal's dusty coat before commenting on its lean, athletic appearance.

U.S. and Afghan troops have pushed several miles south of the base here, across a major east-west highway, in the course of the Kandahar campaign, which has been dubbed Operation Dragon Strike. An army public affairs officer said two villages have doubled in size since coming under coalition control, and the number of people seeking work through a U.S.-sponsored program nearby has increased from 30 to 400 in six days.

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