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The Changing Face of Battle

On the forbidding frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, more GIs are joining the search for the enemy. Their mission is far different from that of the Special Forces.

October 13, 2002|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

SARDAK, Afghanistan — The search of Amar Gul's hut was yielding little until Pfc. Andrew Johnson happened to notice a poster on the mud-brick wall. There, smiling benevolently, was the face of Osama bin Laden.

"Hey, sergeant, you gotta see this!" Johnson shouted to his squad leader, Sgt. 1st Class Wylie Hutchison.

Hutchison confronted Gul, a tall ethnic Pushtun with a wild black beard. Gul claimed that the poster belonged to his uncle. It was a mere advertisement, Gul said, a Bin Laden endorsement of a lottery in Pakistan. He was certainly no supporter of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Hutchison snatched the poster from the wall and crumpled it. "I don't believe you, man."

With that, Amar Gul became a PUC -- a "person under control," one more small fish caught up in the wide net cast by the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts in the unforgiving mountains that hug the Pakistani border.

Like most Afghans detained by U.S. forces, Gul was interrogated and released. And so the hunt wore on, day after day, night after night, as paratroopers of the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment swept through high-desert villages.

Wrapped in body armor, their M-4 automatic rifles locked and loaded, the soldiers are the vanguard of an evolving U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Slowly but deliberately, the U.S. military is shifting the troops it is using from unconventional to conventional forces. Even with U.S. policymakers preoccupied by Iraq, large numbers of American soldiers are now at work along the dangerous Afghanistan-Pakistan border in combat operations virtually unknown to the American public.

Instead of deploying from the sprawling U.S. bases at Bagram and Kandahar, hundreds of soldiers are mounting assaults from a forward operating base in the border region -- the area where Bin Laden, if he is still alive, is thought to be hiding. Rousing villagers in the middle of the night, poking through their belongings and questioning women as well as men, they are attempting to destroy the infrastructure of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and sympathizers and the way stations they use to move weapons, ammunition, equipment and people between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although the Americans often come across hidden weapons, enemy fighters have usually slipped away. The troops work hand in hand with small Army Special Forces teams in a sometimes contentious partnership. For months, Special Forces "A teams" have lived among Afghans, cultivating relationships and developing intelligence on the hundreds of enemy fighters they believe are in the region. Now the 82nd is acting on that intelligence, searching villages and compounds in massive sweeps backed by mortars, artillery and helicopter gunships.

The Special Forces teams have provided brains, guile and expertise. The 82nd units offer muscle and brute force, softened by a patina of civility and public relations.

After sometimes bitter complaints from Special Forces teams that the 82nd was intimidating and alienating civilians, the soldiers now explain their intentions to village elders. They ask permission to search homes, and have female soldiers search women in a patriarchal Pushtun culture obsessed with keeping women hidden and unpolluted by the gaze of Western men. They are replacing smashed locks with new ones. And they are accompanied by civil affairs teams offering humanitarian aid and basic medical care.

Commanders of the 82nd say the tactics are paying off. Searches in recent weeks have yielded caches of mines, machine guns, explosives, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells, armor-piercing rounds, automatic rifles, radios and documents. In some cases, these commanders say, Afghan civilians have directed soldiers to the caches.

Officers and enlisted men camped at the new base endure a charged existence of anxiety and adrenaline, punctuated by intervals of stupendous boredom. They are under constant threat of attack by an unseen enemy. Almost every week, bases in the region are rocketed. Soldiers live in fear of land mines, truck bombs or a grenade tossed into a vehicle.

While on combat missions or reconnaissance patrols, the soldiers drive through gantlets of hostile and suspicious Afghans. Some people wave and shout, "How are you!" But others glare and curse and show the Americans the backs of their hands -- a grave insult. Children beg for bottled water or pens, but a few pepper the soldiers' armored Humvees with stones.

At the camp, soldiers wearing towels around their waists and scuffling through the dirt in flip-flops carry their automatic rifles to and from showers and latrines. Even when they're tossing a football or playing cards, their weapons are within arm's reach.

Secrecy is paramount. A sign next to the telephone where soldiers line up to call home reads: "Do not discuss classified material over the phone. We'll be home when we get there."

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