US sets up copter base in Afghan mountains
Using bulldozers to slice bunkers and a helicopter landing pad out of a mountainside, U.S. special operations forces dug in Tuesday on a peak overlooking Pakistan - fortifying the area for the intensifying battle against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.
Special operations forces - who include Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and CIA operatives - are playing a secretive but leading role in the battle against al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects believed to be hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan's tribal areas.
Remote posts like this one near the Afghan city of Orgun, scratched out of a mountainside to house a small contingent of U.S. forces and a larger Afghan militia unit, serve as forward launch pads for the fight.
An Associated Press writer on Tuesday became the first to report from the special operations' observation post since the start of Operation Mountain Storm, a 2-week-old American offensive designed to capture Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
Village elders in this hamlet of 45 families in Paktika province said the Americans arrived 18 days ago with Afghan militia.
The camp is home to 60 Americans, working with 200 Afghan militia, the Afghan militiamen say. The Westerners wear T-shirts and sunglasses, and most sport beards and mustaches, with pistols strapped to their legs. Rank and file U.S. soldiers must remain in uniform and are banned from growing beards, but special operations forces are not subject to the same regulations.
Villagers see the Americans out building their base and patrolling, at times with allied Afghan militia - helping close the border against what villagers say are frequent incursions by al-Qaeda and Taliban.
The U.S. military says its forces also are sharing information with Pakistani troops across the border - intelligence typically coming everywhere from satellites to intercepted radio calls.
On Tuesday, the Americans were erecting 100 yards of wire fence along the border beside their base. They also dug holes, which will become bunkers, to live in while their Afghan allies put up tents.
Workers used construction equipment to level a helipad.
Americans around the camp refused to speak to AP. Relaying their request through Afghan militiamen, they eventually asked the reporter to leave, saying no journalists were allowed in the area.
The U.S. military as a matter of policy does not comment on special operations. But asked about buildup along the Afghan-Pakistan border in the area, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said: "We do have some positions that are constantly changing. We are constantly rearranging."
On the Pakistan side, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said about a dozen U.S. "technical experts" are in his country. Some are located across the border from the special operations post in Miran Shah, Pakistani intelligence officials told AP.
Last week, a Pakistani army spokesman, Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said a dozen or so U.S. intelligence agents were in the country "assisting Pakistan in technical intelligence and surveillance." The CIA declined to comment.
Afghan villagers near the new post said they welcomed the U.S. crackdown, saying they have come under a growing cross-border rocket barrage from Pakistan.
"So many rockets. We are living in fear of rockets," said shopkeeper Shawar Khan in Sisandi, a village near the U.S. encampment.
Both sides of the border around Miran Shah have come under repeated rocket attacks by militants hoping to hit U.S. or Afghan military posts. Authorities blame al-Qaeda fugitives and allied Pakistan tribesmen. Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding in the mountains as well.
No uniformed American forces have been seen in recent days along one of the front lines in the U.S. campaign against terror suspects based in Pakistan's North and South Waziristan, locals say.
Across the border and about 45 miles to the south, in South Waziristan, Pakistan's military has arrested scores in its toughest and bloodiest operation against terror suspects in the tribal areas since Musharraf allied with the United States against terror in 2001.
These mountains in Afghanistan are a hot spot as well.
On March 5, U.S. special operations forces killed nine suspected insurgents near this stretch of border when a group of 30 to 40 men appeared to try to flank a U.S.-Afghan position here, the U.S. military said.
Village leaders say Taliban and al-Qaeda attackers cross the border at will. Asked for proof, they laughed, as if there could be no doubt.
"Everyone can come easily into Afghanistan. Everyone can go easily into Pakistan," said Mohammed Khan, another shopkeeper in Sisandi. "There are no Afghan checkpoints."
"For 2 1/2 years, they are coming and attacking" from Waziristan, said Shawar Khan. "That's why in this area, there are no schools, there's no health clinics, there's no development. Everyone is afraid to come to our area."
Since the Americans' arrival, villagers have stayed inside after dark, saying the U.S. security outweighed the inconvenience of the curfew.
The U.S. and Afghan forces have closed this part of the border, at least, to any attacks, Mohammed Khan said.
"Right now, from this area, it's impossible that anyone can come," the villager said. "But it's a huge border."