The fighting in Afghanistan may have slipped below the radar of most Americans back home, but for the soldiers on the ground things appear to be getting worse. Attacks on the Americans and their Afghan allies are increasing. The enemy is becoming better organized and better armed. Despite the presence of 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the influence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is spreading. A new U.N. security report reckons that one-third of the country is too dangerous for aid distribution.
Just ask the boys at the Shkin firebase. On Sept. 29, two platoons from the 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division found themselves locked in a 12-hour battle against a few dozen al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas. It was the fiercest combat U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have seen in more than 18 months and an extreme test of valor under fire. An American was killed by a sniper; quick thinking by U.S. soldiers averted many more deaths. "Most of us feel this strange mixture of sorrow and exhilaration," says Major Paul Wille. "It was the perfect fight."
In this battle, victory went to the U.S. forces. But it seems evident that the enemy is growing bigger and bolder. "During the jihad against the Soviets, the fighters were crossing over in threes and fours," says a European diplomat in Kabul, referring to the long guerrilla struggle that finally drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1989. Now, says the diplomat, who has access to intelligence reports, "they are coming across in hundreds." The U.N. Security Council met in closed consultations late last week to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. "It is really very bad, much worse than Iraq," says a senior ambassador who took part. He fears the country could devolve into a lawless free-for-all, with international troops caught in the middle.
Just two miles from Pakistan's border, the Shkin firebase acts as a choke point on fighters coming out of the mountains. The 300 men at the fort have a single mission: to hunt down the enemy. They are equipped with artillery, fleets of armored humvees and a communications network that lets them call in air strikes within minutes. These days they focus too on how not to offend local sensibilities, no longer searching veiled women, for example. ("But if I find an Afghan woman who is 6 ft. 5 in."--Osama bin Laden's height--"I'm sure as hell going to have her searched," says Sergeant Vernon Story.) Soldiers are also learning to be more wary regarding tips about al-Qaeda suspects; the U.S. has often been duped into taking sides in tribal feuds.
Lately, however, the problem has been an absence of intelligence and precious few leads about the whereabouts of bin Laden or his comrades. That may be because the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan and gave comfort to al-Qaeda before the U.S. invaded, is regrouping. "The tribal chiefs are hedging their bets," says an adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "They know that when the American soldiers leave their village, the Taliban will steal back to take revenge." A few miles north of Shkin, in a dusty bazaar known as Bormol, gunmen dragged a pro-American police chief and seven of his officers out into the marketplace this summer and slit their throats. In these U.S. outposts, the Army can do little but wait until the enemy strikes first.
The U.S. firebase looks like a Wild West cavalry fort, ringed with coils of razor wire. A U.S. flag ripples above the 3-ft.-thick mud walls, and in the watchtower a guard scans the expanse of forested ridges, rising to 9,000 ft., that mark the border. When there's trouble, it usually comes from that direction, which is exactly what happened early in the morning of Sept. 29.
It was supposed to be a day off for the 1st Platoon. Some of the 300 men at Shkin are watching TV in the fort mess hall, chowing down on grits and eggs. A few are lifting weights. Specialist Richard Solloway is grumbling to anyone who will listen that Hugh Hefner turned down Solloway's request for the platoon to tour the Playboy Mansion on the next home leave.
The 2nd Platoon is out on patrol, moving through the draws and brush-covered hills along the border. Armored humvees with gunners inside are parked on the ridges, while the infantrymen below stalk through the wadis, or dry streambeds. One soldier thinks his buddy is playing a joke, hitting him in the back with a rock. But it's shrapnel. Suddenly mortar rounds are screaming in, landing all around the Americans. Sergeant David Gilstrap is bleeding; he has been hit in the face. A jagged dart of shrapnel protrudes from Specialist Robert Heiber's arm. It hurts like fire, but Heiber mostly feels anger. He uses his Leatherman pliers to yank out the shrapnel and keeps on firing. When a medic tries to take Heiber back with Gilstrap to the firebase for treatment, Heiber refuses. He is a sniper and has spotted a curl of smoke from al-Qaeda mortar tubes above a rock gallery, some 600 yds. away.