KHOST, Afghanistan – Fighting the War on Terror in eastern Afghanistan is not easy. Its dangers and difficulties became vividly clear last week.
Paul Riley of Alpha Company 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was shot and injured. It happened about 50 yards from where we were standing. We were embedded with the unit at the time.
Riley, a 21-year-old Hilton Head, S.C., native, was on guard outside a village the company was combing for Al Qaeda (search), Taliban or other anti-coalition fighters. They didn't find any, but one of the bad guys found the company.
The injured soldier was tended to quickly. Luckily, Riley's wound was not life-threatening and a Medivac helicopter whisked him away within an hour.
Then the hard part started: Trying to find those responsible.
The stoic and determined commander of Alpha Company, Capt. Tony Gibbs, led his men through the rugged terrain around the village, best-suited for mountain goats — craggy cliffs, sharp ravines, shifting dirt and rocks. People were spotted who turned out to be sheepherders. Others thought to be possible shooters were women.
After several hours, with the sun beating down on the sweating troops, Gibbs suspended the search. While the troops did bring in one man for questioning as a witness, the best guess of the troops was that the terrorists made it across the border into Pakistan (search).
That is a "no-go zone" currently for U.S. troops. "They picked a good spot," Gibbs told me as we trudged back from the valley. "They quickly moved out of the area."
And that's the challenge of the terror hunt here right now — a difficult landscape, limiting boundaries and a (mostly) faceless foe.
The shooting, in fact, was just one of several incidents in the past several days while we were out in the field with the troops — most of them, luckily, "near-misses."
The same day as the shooting, hand grenades were thrown at a convoy of Delta Company, which we also had spent time with. The grenades were duds and one of the assailants was shot and killed.
The day before, an Improvised Explosive Device (search) went off about 50 yards ahead of an Alpha Company convoy. The driver of the armored Humvee in the lead, Staff Sgt. Kelly Rogne, said if it had detonated under one of the vehicles, there could have been carnage.
A few days later, another two IEDs went off on the same stretch of road near Pakistan that soldiers of Bravo Company had traveled a few hours before.
Perhaps most ominous, was a "greeting" we got as we broke camp with Alpha Company last weekend. We were driving along a dry riverbed that passes for a road in that part of Afghanistan but our path was blocked by a cord strung between poles on either side.
Written on white flags hanging from the poles and a piece of paper lying on the ground? "Long Live Usama Bin Laden. Long Live the Taliban. Long Live Mullah Mohammed Omar."
It demanded U.S. Army "infidels" leave the country and warned that if the flags were taken down "action would be taken."
While the danger here, for the moment, doesn't approach what's happening in Iraq, the stakes are arguably just as high. It is all part of the search that is the ultimate goal: The capture of the leader of the Al Qaeda terror network, Usama bin Laden, depriving him and his cohorts any safe haven in the region. A search that often seems close to impossible.
The Soviet Red Army, when they were occupying Afghanistan against the will of most of the Afghan people back in the 1980s, used to call the Mujahedin (search) guerilla fighters "ghosts."
The 501st have no intention of occupying Afghanistan. And they feel the vast majority of the people in this one-time hotbed of Al Qaeda and Taliban (search) support are behind them. But a lot of the time, it seems like they too are chasing ghosts.
The night after the two IEDs detonated near Bravo Company, the 27-year-old whiz-kid commander of the unit, Capt. Jon Chung, deployed his men around the area, setting up observation points and possible traps for the culprits.
Again they came up empty. But again, the same challenges: An impossible landscape and just around the bend, the beckoning haven of Pakistan.
In discussions with Afghans in a village nearby, Chung and Lt. Jim Estes (kind of a "good cop/bad cop" questioning team) heard that some people on the Pakistan side of the border (who have ethnic and even family ties with those in Afghanistan) spoke disparagingly of Afghans who made contact with American soldiers.
They learned about other attacks on locals in the area thought to be Al Qaeda-related. But mostly they asked questions without any clear-cut answers: What areas of the mountainous region did they consider dangerous? Who did they know might be willing to plant a bomb or harbor a stranger for money? And how many people might be willing to fight for the security of the area?
There are encouraging signs as these units work the eastern Afghan terrain.
A group of elders in the area where the shooting and IED incidents occurred gathered to try to insure safety for U.S. soldiers and their own people in the region.
While the number of anti-coalition incidents might have picked up, the troops think it has more to do with their own stepped-up presence than a new terror offensive. And the ineffectiveness of the attacks (that shooting injury was the first and so far the only offensive casualty the battalion has taken in their six months here) indicates those involved are not exactly upper-echelon terror figures.
The frustrations are there too. The locals' stories still don't all match. Anti-coalition incidents are still occurring. Troop movements are still limited by political considerations. And many of the terrorists — including No. 1 bin Laden — are still at large.
Still these guys (and gals) are determined. On this latest mission, Capt. Chung's company would later detain two suspects. At their compound, near the Pakistan border, they found the makings for explosives, an antenna for a radio system, passports and money. All the accessories of a cross-border terrorist or what they call a terrorist "facilitator."
As for the wounded Alpha soldier, Paul Riley, he's walking around the base in Khost on crutches and in good spirits. "I don't mind getting shot at," said Riley, "I just don't like getting shot."
He also said he wants to get back in the field and "do my job."