TIME: On al-Qaeda's Western Flank


In a small stretch of pine trees at Dara, a village near Gardez, Special Forces and Afghan allies hunker down on a frontline. Al-Qaeda's forward positions lie across a few hundred feet of rocky ground, in the first of the mountains of Shah-I-Kot. The sky is filled with light snow and the drone of U.S. strike aircraft pounding the white capped peaks above. Occasionally, the jagged walls of rock rumble with explosions, and belch plumes of black smoke. Within hours the ground attack will recommence. Led by U.S. soldiers, these bedraggled Afghan fighting men in dirty shalwar kameez, vests, sandals, camouflage jackets and pukul will step out from their cover and charge the terrorists' bunkers, praying the bombardment has softened the waiting defenses. "This is 100 per cent danger," says a mujahid nursing his Kalishnikov. "But I'm not afraid," he adds, unconvincingly.

Even getting this far has not been easy. The U.S. and allied forces had run a hellish gauntlet over a boggy road coursing over gully beds and stony plains to this front near Mendzhavar. A mere 20 minutes from the center of Gardez, the surrounding villages belong to the enemy. "Everyone here is al Qaeda," says a nervous Afghan soldier pointing out houses from where a U.S.-Afghan column was ambushed last week. "We aren't safe passing through because we can't say which homes they're in and which ones they aren't."

That column had been moving south at around 2am in the first days of Operation Anaconda, when a brightly colored truck carrying Afghan soldiers was hit by al Qaeda's heavy weapons. It now lies on its side in a ditch, not far from the mud-brick structure to the east where the trap had been laid. Calling in close air support, the coalition troops had pummeled the building and pushed the enemy back. But the al Qaeda fighters regrouped at a high walled compound further down the road and off to the west. Again they unleashed heavy weapons fire; once more they were repelled. "When we'd finished all the Arabs were dead," says another mujahid who had been in the convoy that morning. But even this miserable ground had come at a price; a handful of government soldiers were killed and, according to the mujahid, so was one American. "He died right here," he says standing in a dip in the road.

Harried from the rear even as they advance, it's no wonder progress here has been so slow. "We've had to set up additional checkpoints in the past 24 hours to cut supply and escape lines to protect the Americans' backs," an Afghan commander told Time on Friday.

The troops at Dara have been sent to wipe away al-Qaeda's western defenses and sweep over the mountains into Shah-i-Kot. At the same time the 101st Airborne is pressing down from the north, while the enemy's retreat is blocked by the 10th Mountain Platoon and Special Forces to the east and south. But near Dara the bombs are still falling on the near side of the mountains, meaning the Afghan combat group here still has some way to go. "My next rotation to the front is in three days and I'll be up there for about 24 hours, even after that I'm not sure we will have reached Shah-i-Kot," says a junior Afghan commander. He says the firefights have been so intense "the rounds are thick in the air like rain — it's as if there's bullets hitting bullets."

Elsewhere, hundreds of Northern Alliance reinforcements sent from Kabul arrived in Gardez on Saturday afternoon. That raised murmur of discontent in the local Pashtun garrisons, because the reinforcements are Tajik fighters from the Pansjir Valley — longtime rivals of the Pashtun in Afghanistan's complex tribal wars. One of the uniformed government infantrymen told Time they've been brought in to add punch to the Afghans' western assault.

"We're going forward slowly, cave by cave," says a local Afghan commander. "When we capture as little as 30 feet at one go, or as much as 200 feet, we have to look ahead of us closely and sweep the way clear always wondering, where's our enemy?" Air support often proves decisive. "These massive bombs are dropped and when we advance again the tunnel mouths are sealed and they can't shell us anymore," says one soldier. Success is coming one rock at a time. Says one weary Afghan soldier riding a truck back to Gardez, "They are fighting to the death, it's what they want."