The Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan is relatively close to the location in Pakistan where al Qaeda number-two Ayman al-Zawahri came within a few hours of getting his ticket punched. The opponents of the 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team are a mixture of local and foreign fighters.
The secret in winning militarily may well be straightforward: Control the high ground.
From the March 19 Asia Times. The writer is Philip Smucker, author of the 2004 book Al Qaeda’s Great Escape: The military and media on terror’s trail.
While US forces rarely see their enemy, their mission is to fight for the hearts and minds of the same people al-Qaeda and its affiliates try to win over. While the insurgents try to operate with the cover of the what Chinese leader Mao Zedong once called the “sea of the people”, US forces are trying to pry away that popular backing.
“We are constantly pushing into areas where the enemy operates freely – encroaching upon them and taking away their population base,” says Commander Larry LeGree, who is charged with building roads into insurgent strongholds in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.
The point of building so many roads into remote areas along the Afghan border, say US officers, is also to “create a firewall” against al-Qaeda efforts to infiltrate with men and guns. At the same time, the Afghan forces that are meant to patrol these roads are being “mentored” by their US colleagues.
Yet the firewall can quickly turn into an ambush for US and Afghan fighters in the low ground. There are so many infiltration points available on the Pakistani border – particularly as the snow melts – that real issue is “who controls the high ground”, according to a senior Afghan security official.
Insurgents rarely attack US fighters unless and until they have managed to position themselves at a higher altitude than their foe. “I would say that 95% of the time they hit us from the high ground – when our backs are turned,” says Tanner Stichter, a soldier serving in the Korengal Outpost. “We have a very difficult time finding these foreign fighters – as they remain hidden.”
The first response of US infantry when they are hit from insurgent positions in the hills above them is to call in air power and heavy artillery. This is not always effective as insurgents operate out of well-hidden redoubts – often the same positions used by guerrilla fighters in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
American forces, whose air power is far superior to any in the world, often end up pummeling the rocks in frustration. “I’ve watched on – you know – Predator feeds from the drones firing 155 shell after 155 shell and slamming into a house,” says Lieutenant Brandon Kennedy, a recent graduate of West Point military academy. “They watch fighters come running out of these same structures. It is fairly difficult to accurately engage these guys.”
Both US fighters and their Afghan proteges agree that they could do with controlling more of the high ground along the border with Pakistan.
“The US forces, along with the Afghan army and police, need to go on the offensive now – before the weather breaks,” insists police chief, Haji Mohammed Jusef. “This time of year is the best time for us to take the high ground and deny it to the enemy.”
These same peaks, however, straddle the Durand Line, some of them positioned in Afghanistan and others in Pakistan. It is an international border that the US and Afghan forces are obliged to recognize, but one which al-Qaeda merely hides behind.