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U.S. troops still on hunt in Afghanistan

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2003

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- In the past two weeks, U.S. troops have died in helicopter crashes and ambushes. They've bombed targets, dodged rocket and mortar fire and ducked friendly fire. And they have gained a little ground against the enemy.

All in Afghanistan.

While the United States and the world focus on the war in Iraq, a largely forgotten battle goes on. In Afghanistan, a U.S. force just 3 percent the size of the one in Iraq is still trying to serve as America's barbed wire fence against terrorists.

There are 8,500 U.S. troops scattered around this sprawling, desolate nation. They are still looking for Osama bin Laden, former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and any other terrorists who might be plotting attacks.

But even here, the troops' eyes turn toward Iraq. CNN dominates televisions scattered around this former Soviet air base and soldiers of America's elite 82nd Airborne Division talk wistfully about their colleagues fighting two nations to the west.

"I would rather be in Iraq, to tell you the truth," said Staff Sgt. Ronald Story, 40, of Fort Myers. "That's what we train for, you know. Sometimes I feel a little guilty watching those guys."

For soldiers like Story, who is based in Fort Bragg, N.C., and is an expert in chemical weapons detection, keeping morale high is a bit of a challenge, particularly when they see the global attention centered on the troops in Iraq.

"You take heart from little things. The grass is coming back here. The Kochi tribe (of nomadic camel herders) is back. Every day, more shops in Kabul open and more people come home," said Col. Roger King, chief spokesman for the joint task force directing Afghanistan operations. "And you also have the losses you take here that let you know it is not just a one-way conflict."

Among those losses:

On March 29, a Special Forces soldier and an airman were killed in an ambush in Geresk, a town near the Taliban's birthplace of Kandahar.

Less than a week before that, on March 23, six Air Force airmen were killed when a U.S. helicopter crashed in poor weather during an effort to rescue two injured Afghan children.

Neither the rescue nor the injured children who were awaiting pickup had anything to do with combat, a reminder of the dual mission troops here are playing as both soldiers, and increasingly, as goodwill ambassadors.

On a daily basis, U.S. troops and allies in the coalition of 11,500 troops are scattered throughout the country. Much of the fighting is in the hands of U.S. special operations forces who gather information and search for weapons caches and wanted terrorists loyal to bin Laden.

"They work like beat cops. They get to know their neighborhood and who they need to be interested in," King said.

Additionally, coalition aircraft -- helicopters, attack jets and B-1 bombers -- routinely fly missions over Afghanistan, almost like police who keep a helicopter in the air, just in case.

"We try to keep something in the air basically all the time," King said. "If the troops come into contact with something, then they are readily available. It's a maintaining readiness kind of deal."

In a very different kind of battle, U.S. troops are trying to make friends throughout Afghanistan. They visit tribal and village elders, dig new water wells and deliver books to Afghan children. They hand out leaflets to remind anyone who might still be thinking about al-Qaida that cooperating with the United States and the new Afghan government is the better choice.

Still, it seems that every day, troops are finding pockets of violent opposition in a war that largely ended shortly after it started 17 months ago.

On Wednesday, U.S. fighters and bombers were called out to support Afghan troops and 12 U.S. Special Forces soldiers battling an estimated 40 fighters for the deposed Taliban. U.S. planes dropped or fired 35,000 pounds of bombs and rockets onto the Tor Ghar Mountains in southeast Afghanistan -- an area where Osama bin Laden might be hiding. No U.S. troops were injured and no estimate was given of damage to the Taliban troops, who apparently are trying to destabilize the new Afghan government.

And while the fighting in Tor Ghar is fiercer than normal, it is not at all uncommon for U.S. troops to be fired on more than once a day at bases and camps throughout the country. In the last two weeks of March alone, there were 17 attacks on coalition troops, including the fatal ambush of the special operations soldier and airman. Most resulted in no injuries as rockets or mortar shells missed their mark.

While that number is actually down from a similar period last November when 34 attacks were reported, authorities here suspect that the March number is bolstered by attacks motivated or encouraged by the start of war in Iraq.

"Some people may be taking advantage of that," said Capt. Alayne Cramer, another spokesperson for the coalition. "Using the war in Iraq as an excuse for attacks."

But none of those incidents, including the deaths, has received much media attention. On Thursday, humanitarian groups complained that Iraq had so preoccupied the world's media that the murder of a Red Cross worker two weeks ago has largely gone unnoticed. Ricardo Munguia was shot to death after he and Afghan workers were ambushed on a road near Kandahar.

"The lack of coverage by the international media of the brutal murder of an aid worker is alarming," said Aine Fay of the charity group Concern Worldwide. "Without such coverage, groups such as the one that carried out this atrocity are being given license to continue."

U.S. troops also seem to feel the world's lack of attention to their work here. But few seem to care.

"I wouldn't necessarily say I feel forgotten by the public. But the media focuses on something else," said Chief Warrant Officer Jason Dyals, 37, who studies maps and terrain for the 82nd Airborne. "But there weren't reporters there to talk to me in Bosnia or Hungary and there aren't usually any at Fort Bragg either."

At the Bagram Air Base, soldiers get hot meals, hot showers and heated tents. There's a base exchange stocked with everything from potato chips to PlayStations. It serves as sort of a base camp for the special operations troops and their support soldiers who live in more primitive conditions in the field.

Soon it will have a coffee bar which, along with all the construction and congestion, will continue to give Bagram more the feel of a North Tampa subdivision than a combat zone. The tent accommodations are hardly hotel quality, but the comparative feeling of comfort and safety is not lost on troops.

"This is okay here," said Pvt. Alicia Valmont, 19, an aviation operations specialist. "Over there (Iraq) they jump into (chemical protection suits) all the time. There's just too much battle there."

Amid the comfort, commanders battle complacency. Just outside the gates at Bagram Air Base, Afghan troops now friendly to the United States carry AK-47 rifles without drawing so much as a sideways glance from the MPs.

"Commanders owe it to their soldiers to be hard on those soldiers to keep them sharp," King said. "If it means you've got to be a jerk, you've got to be a jerk."

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