'Killing season' opens in the Afghan hills
By Philip Smucker
DANGAM, Afghanistan, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border - The four Chinook helicopters whipped up a fury in the dry brush and grass atop the desolate peak. As each landed, fighters in war paint, their helmets billowing with camouflage netting, emerged with machine guns and high-tech mortar systems. A two-man sniper team dove for cover beside a huge boulder. Just hours earlier, American soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York, had been glued to a showing of Black Hawk Down. Now, the fight was on.
But there was one important element missing from this multi-million dollar invasion of a small Afghan village. As two Apache helicopters bobbed and buzzed to provide cover for the soldiers as they descended on a series of tiny hamlets set at the base of a snowy pass, the sun had already risen, effectively eliminating the element of surprise.
Lieutenant Jake Kerr of Lake Placid, New York, was already berating the Afghan soldiers at the head of his squad. More than anything, he was frustrated with the timing of the assault by two American platoons and dozens of Afghans. Events were now beyond his control.
"I wanted the choppers sent in here at night and I wanted the support by fire set up at night," he said. "The Afghans saw us coming down the mountain from the second we were here. Anyone who was going to run would have run and hidden themselves before we knew it."
The assault was not going as smoothly as the lessons he had studied at the prestigious West Point military academy. Kerr, who wears his family's Scottish crest tattooed on his massive right forearm, represents the first generation of a new American warrior schooled in the raw lessons gained from the US military's often-bungled attempts to fight counter-insurgencies in the Islamic world.
West Point, which has produced such towering leaders as General Douglas MacArthur and president Dwight D Eisenhower, has done an about-face in recent years, incorporating new counter-insurgency studies from the "war on terror" into its once conventional war-minded curriculum.
Kerr, 25, has studied the efforts of the British in Malaya and the French in Algeria. Officers and mentors, fresh off the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, coached him in tactics.
The war the young lieutenant is now fighting might have been the subject of John F Kennedy's address to West Point cadets in 1962, counsel that foreshadowed a deepening engagement in Vietnam. Kennedy spoke of the necessity to prepare for a conflict "new in its intensity, ancient in its origin - war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy".
Until recently, even the bitter lessons from the US's lost war in Southeast Asia had long been gathering dust in the file cabinets of that hallowed institution.
Still, even if Kerr's first-ever air assault had taken place under the cover of darkness, it was an odd way for him to enter one of the largest villages in his district for the first time. Although he knew a few of the residents on a first-name basis, he hadn't really gotten to know any of them well. The two F-15 bombers overhead did nothing, of course, to reassure the Afghans in his presence.
In the next several hours, as village elders equivocated about the presence of suspected arms caches and insurgent networks in their area, Kerr would get to know the villagers better. They didn't slaughter a goat, but they made him a very tasty soup and lauded him for his "brave work" in their district over the previous six weeks.
A key precept for any soldier fighting insurgents in a foreign land has long been: win the trust of the local population, because it is their knowledge - not your own - that will ultimately guide you to victory.
The bloodless air assault was, as least, a start.
Here in the foothills of the Himalayas, where far greater warriors have faltered, Kerr, with the piercing green eyes and dark red hair of his ancestors, has pushed his platoon out to a rocky fortress in the foothills of the Himalayas opposite al-Qaeda's known redoubts in Pakistan's Bajaur and Swat regions, where insurgents have recently forged so-called "peace deals" with the government in Islamabad. Now, the Taliban, its assorted tribal allies and al-Qaeda are - more than ever - narrowly focused on fighting the American "infidel" in Afghanistan.
"What a soldier wants is a clearly defined battle space in which the enemy wears a uniform, but that is not the case here," said Kerr, reflecting on the lessons he was already learning on his first deployment. "The enemy blends in with the population, so the more you know and build trust with the population, the more they are going to help you determine who is who."
As he sat with the village elders, Kerr heard conflicting messages about why he had seen so many dug-in fighting positions on his way into the village, and why a man in a black cloak was still on the mountaintop dodging boulders and pointing a machine gun at the American overwatch platoon.
Elders said they had no arms and, instead, fought off the Taliban with "sticks and stones". The young lieutenant suspected some of the men, many two and three times his age, to be loyal to the anti-American insurgency, but he did his best to disguise his suspicions.
"I am pretty sure that there are arms caches hidden around here," he said. "Still, I understand their predicament. They are so far away from the district center that, you know, everyone over there just considers everyone over here to be bad. They don't get respect from their Afghan neighbors and then they get the Taliban coming over the border and threatening and shooting at them."
Meanwhile, the 10th Mountain fighters don't yet provide the villagers with a sense of security.
Kerr's platoon is, by his own admission, "a conglomeration of Americans who ship out together and do the best we can together".
Among the members of his motley 10th Mountain 1-32 "Combat" platoon, whose members use the "F" word as a modifier for almost everything they do, is an American Indian, a former drug abuser-turned-medic and an ex-pyromaniac.
Kerr has warned his men that they are in for the fight of their lives. He believes that the Taliban, its assorted allies and their al-Qaeda military trainers are already gunning for the stone fortress he is renovating near the district center. In the past week, the enemy could be observed signaling with flares and flashlights.
Last spring in Kunar, several hundred Taliban and foreign fighters swarmed in on a similar US base-in-progress, killing nearly half of a platoon.
Local knowledge will be this platoon's only hope for survival as Afghanistan's springtime "killing season" opens once again. "The idea is to find out what drives the people and start from the ground working up," said Kerr. "We start off with the key leaders and we work our way to the elders and then the people down in the bazaar and, hopefully, when we have done that we kind of get an 'in' with the people."
And local knowledge is what the US military has lacked in Afghanistan since its failure to capture Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants at the now infamous battle of Tora Bora in November and December of 2001.
Pashtuns along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border say that, for now, the Taliban have both the high ground and the upper hand. Just in the past week, the Taliban have stepped up an assassination campaign of local leaders in Kunar, some of whom were handing out US-supplied radios. Commanders with the 10th Mountain Division, including Kerr, hope to take advantage of the Taliban's attacks.
"There are guys out there I know that have had a cousin beheaded by the Taliban," said Kerr. "Now all they want to do is help the coalition forces as much as possible and I know they want revenge. It is an 'enemy's-enemy-is-my-friend' type of a deal."
Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004). He is currently writing My Brother, My Enemy, a book about America and the battle of ideas in the Islamic world.
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