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The Commander Talks…and Civilization at the Base

Cameraman Pierre and I spent our first night in a week in the luxury of a cabin with a hard roof over our heads. Forward Operating Base Asadabad is only a few miles from where we were roughing it with the Marines in northeastern Afghanistan. It’s separated by a few ranges of mountains and it’s protected by flanks of artillery.

FNC
Greg Palkot
In fact, the base, set in a lovely river valley and surrounded by gleaming mountains and lush green riverbeds, could be some kind of resort if it wasn’t populated with troops, Special Force-types and civil affairs workers.

Certainly the chow seemed like resort fare to us after scraping by with dwindling stocks of meals-ready-to-eat and water during our time up in the mountains.

Not much time to linger over eggs, sausages and French toast, though. We had an early appointment with Col. Nicholson, the commander of Operation Mountain Lion and the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. This was the first time we had a chance to talk to him since the mission kicked off.

He seemed pleased with the progress so far. While at this point there had not been any big ferocious Anaconda-style battles, there had been contact with the enemy all around the target valley and the beginning of efforts to regain the place for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Col. Nicholson is actually a remarkable guy. He was always very friendly and warm with us. He let us sit in on a tactical planning session and showed us his temporary living quarters, showing off a picture of himself with his family.

And he certainly has an interesting story, as I explained in my TV profile of him. On Sept 10, 2001, he was wrapping up a respectable career in the military and getting set for retirement. Then his office at the Pentagon was turned into rubble by one of Usama bin Laden’s hijacked airplanes. That’s when he decided that he had to stay, hitching up with 10th Mt. and then spending months planning Operation Mountain Lion, an attack aimed at what some reports describe as “Usama’s Backyard” because of the multiple sightings of the al Qaeda leader there.

Talk about a 9/11 payback! Nicholson made no bones about how the opening minutes of the Operation were meant to mirror the al Qaeda attack in a distinctly American way. Four helicopter assaults were planned at four different locations in the target valley, they were aimed at surprising the terrorists where they made their home. Not unlike those four hijacked airplanes whose purpose was catching America by surprise.

After our interview we accompanied Col. Nicholson on a meeting he was conducting with the Governor of the Kunar province where the mission was concentrating. Col. Nicholson thought that schmoozing with the locals was as important as fighting the insurgency. It was “hearts and minds” basically and he worked hard at it. He knows that the U.S. military is leaving this area at some point and that it will be up to the locals to hold down the fort and fend off the bad guys.

The town of Asadabad is a dusty bustling place this Saturday. We get some glimpses as our convoy of Humvees speeds away from the meeting. We head back to the safe confines of the base to work with producer Kim to get some video reports ready for later in the evening. Afghanistan is eight and a half hours ahead of New York time, so our broadcast schedule is always a bit askew.

The whole thing, of course, is fueled by ample helpings of American food fare as we replace any calories burned off in our torturous mountain treks with blueberry muffins, frozen Mars bars, and the like.

We get the word that we will be leaving the base Sunday for Jalalabad, Bagram, Kabul, Dubai and home (London) to prepare more reports from the Operation.

But there’s also the story of the mission in those rugged crevasses of Kunar. We’ve been following it since we’ve been back. One incident involving a strike on a terror hideout which left civilian casualties got some news, as well as a B-52 bombing strike against another terror den.

I was impressed by the low degree of coverage, which is probably what Col. Nicholson had in mind. While he would have loved to have rounded up or finished off a passel of bad guys, the main intent of Operation Mountain Lion was to make this corner of Afghanistan a very unfriendly place for some unfriendly folks.

Oh, and someone else made news when we got back, too — Usama bin Laden. He had issued another one of his audio postcards from…somewhere. Who knows, maybe he was even in the patch of ground we were spending time in. I know the 21-year-olds in D.O. Platoon, the “9/11 recruits,” would be more than happy to fulfill President Bush’s early proclamation of hauling Usama bin Laden in “dead or alive.” In the meantime, they’ll keep on trucking through that very uninviting Afghan terrain. Good luck to them all, and stay safe.

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Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.