ABLE MAIN BASE, Afghanistan - In a bold and risky push into the Hindu Kush, the US military's 173rd Airborne Combat Team has set up dozens of small operating bases across some of the most remote terrain on Earth.
The feat is being made possible by the US military's airlift capability and a new can-do spirit that pervades the middle ranks of the US-led mission north of Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, in both ethnic Pashtun and Nuristani areas.
Big to small -- here's what part of Afghanistan we're talking about, Nangarhar Province, highlighted in the map of Afghanistan:
Here you can see the northern part of the province. In the lower left corner is Jalalabad, with a road coming up from the bottom of the map and exiting off to the left of the map. This is the main road that runs east to the famous Khyber Pass, and from there to Peshawar, Pakistan; to the west, it goes on to Kabul. You can also see a main road leading northward from Jalalabad into provincial country.
This is not some out-of-the-way part of the country. Though not terribly far from the Pakistani border, neither is it on the frontier. Importantly, it is along the main line-of-communication, the road to the Khyber Pass; insurgent success here could be very significant, threatening the approaches to a major city -- Jalalabad -- and cutting one of Afghanistan's most important arteries.
These next two maps show, in addition to the roads and villages, the topography. This map shows the western side of the northern tip of the province....
And this one shows the eastern side of the northern tip of Nangarhar.
On the sides of these last two maps are some marks indicating minutes (30 and 40) of latitude. One minute of latitude is one nautical mile, a little more than a statute mile, a little less than two kilometers. Ten minutes is equivalent to 11.5 miles. This gives you a way to judge distance on these maps.
Platoon-sized elements in the US military are fanning out from small bases to make contact with remote villages. They are supported with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in an effort to entice Afghans to throw out al-Qaeda-backed insurgents and take advantage of new development projects.
Notice in the last two maps that the villages may be only a few miles apart, but at times the map shows no significant line of communication between them -- not only no road, but not even a trail is depicted. This is why helicopters are needed for mobility, and -- together with attack planes -- for support should a battle suddenly develop.
The new push stands in stark contrast to the first several years of the US efforts in Afghanistan, which were characterized by large bases, heavy bombing of suspected targets and little interaction between infantrymen and Afghan civilians.
In some valleys, US forces face stiff resistance and platoon leaders say they are bracing for a major spring offensive ordered by al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in nearby Pakistan. Kunar and neighboring Nuristan provinces remain a sieve for jihadis anxious to undercut the US efforts.
In other far-flung areas, however, the American counter-insurgency efforts are making striking inroads where other harder-edged US fighting thrusts have failed. American soldiers, sometimes scoffed at as wimps for their heavy body armor, are now admired for their willingness to walk among hills with shepherds and fight toe-to-toe with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
This is interesting. It somewhat reminds me of the Marine Combined Action Platoons of the Vietnam era.
This base, marked by a billboard displaying a Trojan helmet and the words "Able Company Warlords", sits beneath the Avisgar ridgeline where some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan has gone on in the past two years.
Despite the ironic nom de guerre for the fighters, most based in Vincenza, Italy, soldiers spend the lion's share of their days consumed with talk of water systems, retaining walls, new schools and health clinics.
Nevertheless, even as US military officers briefed this reporter in a far-reaching strategy to stabilize vast swathes of the Hindu Kush and offer humanitarian aid, a typical battle broke out this week in the adjacent Watapor Valley.
A pair of A-10 "Warthogs" and at least two F-16s screeched through the blue skies, dropping their payloads. A US officer said his men had "vectored" enemy hideouts through radio intercepts, adding that bombs had eliminated a 15-man insurgent unit.
Squatting on a boulder beneath the air war, base commander Captain Louis Frketic described the new push into remote areas: "Our goal as tactical leaders is to focus on the population," he said. "We have to figure out new ways to embed with the locals and engage them - charismatically."
Frketic said part of his own motivation came from a story he had read about how French foot soldiers in Napoleon's army quartered with local citizenry across Europe over two centuries ago and, in doing so, helped to slowly disseminate ideas of democracy and human rights.
The blue-eyed Floridian said he had asked his own foot soldiers to fan out into nearby villages and spend the night with local elders. "They just relate aspects of their lives, the normal things in life, and the Afghans are able to pick up - how should I say - our belief system and the way we look at the world," he said. "Hopefully that will be a two-way street."
The American soldier has always had a way of making friends with foreign civilians.
Still, an American soldier in all his high-tech weaponry and battle plates can look imposing to a gaggle of turbaned elders. Even getting past the offered green tea can be troublesome if Apache helicopters are bisecting the skies overhead. Tribal elders will often spend hours on end negotiating for higher dollar compensation for Afghan civilian casualties caused by errant US bullets and bombs.
Frketic is sincere, however, and his optimism has worn off on several of his young lieutenants. In his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, the 29-year-old officer and son of a Vietnam veteran has taken it on himself to learn to speak a passable Pashtu.
Learning Pashtu is an admirable accomplishment.
"Some Afghans hear that Americans don't respect their religion and don't respect their culture," he said. "Learning their language demonstrates, I think, a will to understand and a will to respect - something I think they are looking for."
But Frketic, a college-educated veteran of an earlier deployment to Afghanistan, is the exception to the rule. Most of the young American fighters who trek through the mountains and streams of Afghanistan's remotest corners are between 19 and 23 years of age. They did not join the military to be aid workers and as infantrymen they have been trained to focus on "closing with and killing" the enemy.
"Half the time, I don't think they care what we do for them," says a young fighter, who has seen two of his colleagues killed this year. "We stopped taking in assistance two months ago when they attacked us with a roadside bomb. Sometimes, the Afghans play along with us, just long enough to get a little more HA [humanitarian assistance] and then attack again."
I suspect that is the nature of the beast. It is important to recall, too, that Afghans may feel the US deserted them after the jihad. Afghanistan is a place where persistence can pay bid dividends.
The same fighter lamented the bad intelligence leads his platoon sometimes get from Afghans. "The other day, we had an old guy who asked us to meet him on a certain path at a certain time and he was going to give us some information about the insurgents," he added. "When we showed up, shooting broke out on both sides of us."
That kind of thing is going to happen, too. Maybe it was a trap all along; maybe the old guy was seen talking to Americans, questioned by the bad guys about it, and had to save his own neck.
The young infantrymen do not, however, work in a vacuum. Tens of millions of dollars in development assistance is also backing up foot patrols as an element of the broader "stabilization" efforts for Afghanistan.
On a new road that connects northern Kunar to southern Kunar near Asmar, a large vocational center is under construction. It will train hundreds of Afghans as mechanics, welders and builders.
"A lot of us are convinced that the root of the insurgency here is an economic problem," said Captain Steve Fritz, who pointed to the shiny new center as Afghan men laid bricks for a school several meters further down a valley. "We are working with combat units to try and identify students for the school. We will provide them with a new skill set, bolster the local economy and, hopefully, help minimize the insurgency."
One problem in Afghanistan is that the road infrastructure is inadequate for transporting raw materials and goods. Opium moves along the roads okay -- due to profitability and determination? To enable a normal economy, however, the roads need to be repaired (or in some cases, as we see on the map, a road needs to be built), and kept secure.
Although the jury on the success or failure of the US efforts here is still out, the tactics appear to be, if nothing else, helping to alter the way that Afghans see Americans and Americans see Afghans.
Fighters here are less likely than counterparts in Iraq to employ the generic slurs of haji and "Mohammad" to describe civilians. Indeed, there are signs that small children in some regions enjoy the company of the young American gladiators, whom they have managed to soften up with sweet talk of their own.
Captains and sergeants guiding the platoons that do the hardest work say the most effective "weapons" in their arsenal are new schools and health clinics, rather than grenades and machineguns.
Still, one gunner, who zoomed his sights in on a mountain pass, lamented that his senior officers would only let him shoot his TOW missile launcher at groups of six or more insurgents because the cost of one shot was "equal to a new school".
Despite the idealism found in the middle ranks here, US foot soldiers sometimes still complain that they are being used as mere cannon fodder in a forgotten war.
It is not a forgotten war.
Our personnel over there, and those of our allies, together with the people of Afghanistan are very much remembered every day.
Able Company, and everyone else serving there: We appreciate your efforts and your sacrifices. You are heroes.