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Going in small in Afghanistan.

A Monitor reporter joins with small teams of US troops that are trying to distance border villagers from insurgents in a key battle zone in the war on terror.

By Ann Scott TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 2004


With gold turbans and eyes ringed in black, the Afghan men squat in a circle in the dust, listening intently to the first US soldiers to appear in this desolate border outpost for at least a year.

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"We are not like the Russians. We won't come here and bomb everything," a soldier tells them. "I have many men and many bombs, and I can bring them all," he says, as an Apache gunship swoops overhead. "But I'm not going to. I want only to use them against the bad people."

The Afghans respond initially with hard looks and few words. A tribal elder, taken aside and asked whether he knows of any Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters in the area, answers simply, "No."

"It's too dangerous," an Afghan interpreter whispers to me, "Asking that question is like announcing this man's death in the newspaper!"

The 10th Mountain Division mission into uncharted territory of Paktika Province illustrates a stark dilemma facing US forces as they push deeper into Afghanistan's lawless borderlands: How to persuade Afghans to risk their lives and divulge guerrilla whereabouts in return for a promise of security and development.

"The citizens here have had one choice: We're with the Al Qaeda, or we're dead," says Lt. Col. Mike Howard, the top US commander in Paktika. Villagers in the border districts of Gomal, Barmal, and Gayan are "completely ungoverned" and easily bribed or forced to supply guerrillas with food, shelter, and proxy fighters, he says. "Our challenge is to give them [another] choice."

To do this, US ground troops are expanding their presence in Paktika and other troubled regions of eastern and southern Afghanistan, policing more widely and aggressively. The US strategy means shifting away from large-scale sweeps and slow, top-down planning ill-suited to fighting insurgents, some officers say. Instead, smaller, more agile units - including Special Forces teams linked with Afghan militia - are branching out to win over villagers and flush out guerrillas.

"We can't hunker down in the firebases," says Colonel Howard, whose 1-87 Infantry Battalion now makes frequent, unpredictable forays far beyond its fort-like outposts at Orgun and Shkin. Last month, 1-87 joined Operation Avalanche, a series of overlapping missions along the Pakistani border that involved some 2,000 of the 13,000 US troops in Afghanistan.

Two of 1-87's missions, to Gomal and Barmal, illustrate the risks and rewards of the new approach. The first foray was to learn about the enemy; the second tried - successfully - to lure them into a fight.

'Tell us when bad people are coming'

At first light, the convoy of 10th Mountain Division troops winds down a steep road from the mud ruins of an ancient Afghan fort, its ghostly form overlooking the parched bed of the Gomal River as it snakes toward Pakistan.

The windswept landscape is some of the most barren the troops have seen in Afghanistan. Dry gullies and rocky hills dotted with shrubs that smell of juniper stretch as far as the eye can see.

"Keep your eyes on the high ground," Staff Sgt. Mark McCalister yells to the soldiers jostling in the open back of his cargo Humvee, as the road climbs into hilly terrain.

But the only forms appearing on the ridgelines are lifeless ones: Stones stacked by shepherds to look like wolves; or, farther on, wooden poles festooned with flags that mark Afghan warriors' graves.

Indeed, what draws US forces to this unexplored part of Paktika on Dec. 3 is an anomaly of sorts: A sparsely inhabited district with well-tended roads - roads leading to border crossings such as Khan Pass that have for centuries served as conduits for Afghan trade, and that today are known to be frequented by Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.