LANDING ZONE NORTH DAKOTA, Afghanistan—The Bush administration declared more than two years ago that major combat in Afghanistan was over. Tell that to the 60 young men of Battle Company.
For the past four months, the U.S. paratroopers and other American units have been fighting a war thousands of feet up in the sun-blasted peaks and boulder-strewn defiles of one of history's most grueling battlefields.
They're facing guerrillas who were born here, hardened by poverty and backwardness, and steeped in a centuries-old tradition of resisting foreigners. The guerrillas' aim is to impose another hard-line Islamic regime on Afghanistan, one that might make the country once again a sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida jihadis.
The Taliban have killed more than 40 U.S. soldiers and more than 800 Afghan officials, police, troops, aid workers and civilians since March in a campaign aimed at derailing Sept. 18 parliamentary and provincial elections and eroding confidence in President Hamid Karzai and his American-led backers.
Borrowing tactics from their counterparts in Iraq, they've beheaded alleged informers and staged two suicide bombings, a form of terrorism rarely seen in Afghanistan.
The fighters of the resurgent Taliban movement are no match in face-to-face clashes for highly trained U.S. troops, who are equipped to fight at night and are backed by helicopter gunships, jets, unmanned spy planes, Afghan soldiers and local intelligence officers.
But after suffering massive casualties in a series of major firefights, the Taliban have learned to avoid set-piece battles with the U.S. and Afghan troops who are trying to pen them up in the mountains so they can't sabotage the upcoming polls.
The war has evolved into a bloody game of cat and mouse, a classic guerrilla struggle with echoes of the much larger and far bloodier conflicts in Iraq, Chechnya and Vietnam.
The outcome may well come down to which side can outlast the other.
The Taliban operate in small bands, staging hit-and-run attacks, assassinations and ambushes, laying mines and firing missiles and rocket-propelled grenades before melting back into local populations. U.S. intelligence reports indicate that Taliban leaders constantly change locations.
"One day, they could be firing at you and serving you chai (tea) the next," said Army Capt. Michael Kloepper, 29, of Caldwell, N.J., after a helicopter dropped him and some of his men on a boulder-strewn hilltop dubbed Landing Zone North Dakota on a two-day mission in a remote valley in southern Zabul province.
Kloepper commands Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Based in Vincenza, Italy, Battle Company belongs to a task force of some 900 U.S. troops and 800 soldiers of the newly minted Afghan army operating in Zabul province, one of the worst affected by the insurgency. An area the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, Zabul resembles the blighted moonscape and canine-sharp peaks of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."
A Knight Ridder correspondent and photographer spent five days with Battle Company and several other U.S. units at the leading edge of the Bush administration's effort to stabilize a country ravaged by decades of civil war and overwhelmed by destitution, corruption, overpopulation, disease and despair.
The guerrillas stash their arms in the wheat stacks, wells, thick groves and the off-limits women's quarters of adobe compounds. Their hiding places are scattered in the small oases of almond and apple trees in valleys wedged between mountains that seem to roll ever onward like immense, dun-colored tidal waves.
Hiding in mountaintop caves and crevices, the Taliban track U.S. troops and aircraft—sometimes for scores of miles—and pass intelligence to each other in coded-language via walkie-talkies that are extremely difficult to get a fix on.
"A lot of times, it's like chasing ghosts," said Kloepper's radio operator, Spc. Mark Cushman, 20, of Norman, Okla., during the recent patrol in the district of Deh Chopan, a Taliban stronghold.
Some locals are forced to feed and shelter the guerrillas. Others collaborate because they share the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam or are linked to fighters through tribe and family ties.
The Taliban also may be profiting from outrage at U.S. troops who inadvertently violate cultural taboos while searching compounds and from rising anger over the slow pace of U.S.-led reconstruction programs that seem focused mostly on urban centers.
Nearly four years after the U.S.-led intervention that drove the Taliban from power and made bin Laden the world's most hunted man, Afghanistan has effectively become two countries.
In 24 provinces in the north, west and center, home to the main ethnic minorities, little major violence has been reported. NATO-protected international reconstruction efforts are moving ahead, and there's optimism that the elections, a key point in Washington's efforts to push the country toward democracy and allow a withdrawal of U.S. forces, won't be disrupted.
But in Zabul and nine other southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan, the upsurge in Taliban violence has stalled international aid efforts and may impede the elections, which would be a serious blow to Karzai and the United States.
The north and south are the heartland of the Pashtuns, the ethnic majority from which the Taliban come. Pashtuns also dominate the lawless tribal belt on Pakistan's side of the border. It's there that the Taliban, allies of Pakistan's Islamist political parties and former clients of its military intelligence service, are said to maintain havens, supply depots and training camps. Islamabad denies the allegation.
The commanders of the 18,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan have responded with a hard-hitting counterinsurgency campaign. They've also been reaching out to tribal elders and their people with humanitarian and medical assistance and pledges of better security to encourage them to turn in guerrillas and vote in the elections.
More than 400 guerrillas reportedly have been killed or captured. Still, U.S. commanders expect the bloodshed to escalate through election day. Then comes winter, when snow blocks the mountain passes, and the Taliban, most of whose top leaders were never captured, can rest, regroup, re-arm and recruit new fighters.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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