U.S. soldiers in Pakistan face 'Taliban supermarket'

Tuesday, November 4, 2003

On a knob of windblown earth between Orgun-E and the Pir Kotay Valley, a caravan of Humvees came upon an unlikely sight: beehives row upon row, and by the roadside in recycled plastic water bottles, fresh honey for sale.

Sgt. 1st Class James D. Gannaway, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, was willing to buy. But the apiary owner refused his dollars. Only Pakistani money accepted, he was told.

Though 20 rugged miles away from the international border, Pir Kotay, like much of eastern Afghanistan, looks for income - and, U.S. officers say, political and religious guidance - to a doubtful American ally in the war on terror. Pakistan claims to support Washington's hunt for al-Qaida and the Taliban. But U.S. troops on the ground tell a different story.

"Sanctuary" is how Maj. Paul Willie of the 1/87 characterized what Pakistan means to terrorists.

There is, for him, Afghanistan's displaced terrorists hiding in western Pakistan, and their target the Karzai government in Kabul, with the United States - specifically, the 10th Mountain Division - in the middle.

"Our presence creates a buffer," he said. "We're buying the Afghan army time to train up and get into these areas."

The military has been pointing fingers at Pakistan at least since the 2001 battle at Shah-e-Kot, near the eastern city of Gardez, which officials say probably drove most Taliban and al-Qaida across the border. Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, coalition ground forces commander at the time, contemplated hot pursuit of escaping enemy in the days following the fight, but diplomatic hurdles proved formidable.

U.S. officers continue to speak respectfully of the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf while voicing unmistakable frustration that tribal lands along the border remain militarily out of bounds.

"The Pakistani government is doing its best to eliminate the sanctuary," Maj. Willie said of the tribal areas, which he said include a nebulous, disputed territory called Waziristan. "They're almost their own independent country. The Pakistan government has to ask permission to bring in government forces there."

Civil affairs troops familiar with the region say "terrorist bazaars" in western Pakistan deal in guns, bombs and, lately, satellite phones. These find their way across the dusty passes into Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces where the 10th Division is responsible for keeping the peace.

Provincial leaders take blame a step further, saying that if you want to find the Taliban's supermarket, drive directly east.

"Pakistan is providing them weapons, satellite phones and motorbikes," said a deputy governor who declined to be named.

Sgt. Gannaway leads patrols into the hot spots around Orgun-E firebase. He said local coordination with Pakistan-based "bad guys" is blatant.

"You'll see a shop owner pick up a cell phone after we go by. Out here there's no other reason for having them," he said.

Another soldier in the 1/87, Staff Sgt. Brian T. Wood, is familiar with Afghanistan's eastern provinces from the 10th's earlier tour, 2001-02. He noted a key difference.

"Last time, they were on the mountain," he said, referring to Shah-e-Kot. "This time, they're in town too. Like the North Vietnamese, they blend in with the populace."

He wasn't the only one to see parallels with Vietnam. Maj. Kevin Harvill, who is based in Kandahar with the 10th Forward Support Battalion, compared the Taliban's cross-border incursions with the Vietnamese in Cambodia.

"There's no jungle, but they have caves and mountains, so it's very similar," he said.

An Afghan interpreter for the U.S. forces who identified himself only as Abdullah said that in addition to the Taliban, the Pir Kotay Valley is home turf to a warlord openly opposed to President Hamid Karzai. The warlord makes periodic raids, hiding out in Pakistan, Abdullah said.

Army officials say, not unsympathetically, that villagers in the valley get hit coming and going.

By day, the "hearts and minds" squads of U.S. civil affairs turn up with medicines and school supplies and questions about illegal weapons and ammunition. There are house-to-house searches sometimes.

A civil affairs chief, who goes by the name Sgt. Paul for security reasons, described the giveaways as conditional.

Villagers who volunteer information on "bad guys" are rewarded; the silent or surly get nothing, he said. He doesn't think much of the people of Pir Kotay, calling them "dirty" because, he said, they lie.

The enemy's turn with villagers comes at night. During a conversation with Sgt. Gannaway by a dry riverbed, elders explained over sugared green tea the enemy's method of operation.

"We don't know anything about guns or people who shoot missiles. They come at night when we are asleep," they said through a U.S. translator.

Sgt. Gannaway said later he believed the people weren't telling all they knew, but couldn't condemn them.

"Who do you listen to, the guys who hurt you or the guys who are going to help? While you're among them, they shake hands and smile. When you leave, the other guy comes in and slaps them around," he said.

Others, like Lt. Col. Michael L. Howard of 1/87, say money is at the bottom of continuing trouble from Pakistan. Villagers who attack or assist in attacks on the United States are paid by al-Qaida, Army officials say.

It's the Army's hunch that with enough aid and enough firepower, the tide can be turned...They say the process could take years.

In the meantime, troops silently finger their rifles as the latest tape of a spry Osama bin Laden cavorting over a hillside of rounded rocks appears on TV news in the mess hall. Later, newspaper accounts confirm what most of them already know: that the landscape looks just like a particular part of western Pakistan.

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