TIME: Taunts From the Border


It was an impressive show of force. Under the cloak of darkness last week, Chinook and Black Hawk choppers dropped an entire battalion of 520 U.S. paratroopers into a remote valley in Afghanistan, just across the border from the rugged mountains of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda has re-established training camps. With dogs barking, cows chewing and a watchful camel resting, the heavily armed U.S. force trudged through irrigated fields and muddy Pashtun villages--cordoning off a 3.5-mile-long area and searching each of 150 residential compounds that dangle off the nosebleed hillsides by the Kakh and Khardala rivers. "We aim to get the maximum number of people on the ground at once," says Major Mike Richardson, paratroops operations officer. "It gives us shock value."

But on this particular occasion, the value was limited. Two complexes suspected of being al-Qaeda staging posts were discovered with caches of hundreds of rocket-propelled grenade rounds, mines and ammunition, but the enemy was nowhere to be found; the most threatening local seemed to be an old woman carrying a hatchet over her shoulder and complaining about her uninvited guests.

For the battle-ready members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, such small victories, as frustrating as they may be, will have to suffice. That's because the troops areconfined behind Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, unable to reach the concentrations of al-Qaeda survivors safely ensconced in camps in the mountains surrounding the town of Mirim Shah. From these retreats in Pakistan, al-Qaeda commanders can send out specially trained teams to lob rockets at U.S. bases and air fields. The most U.S. forces can do is disrupt the endless teams of terrorists popping into Afghanistan, closing off their transport routes and seizing weapons and equipment stashed for them by abettors inside the country. "This is the type of warfare that many folks don't have the patience to fight. Hell, I don't know if I'm patient enough," says Lieut. Colonel Martin Schweitzer, battalion commander.

In some ways, the U.S. may be using forces too big for their own good. In snippets of conversations intercepted by U.S. intelligence, al-Qaeda leaders have instructed cell members simply to lie low when Americans descend because "there's too many of them." Says Colonel James Huggins: "They won't confront us in our superior numbers," which makes them almost impossible to see.

In theory, the government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is committed to routing al-Qaeda elements from redoubts within Pakistan. But Islamabad holds little sway in the tribal regions of the northwestern frontier, which are largely autonomous and which just voted in district governments with Islamist agendas.

The Pakistani Frontier Corps, which is responsible for guarding the border, is a ragtag, disorganized militia that isn't even part of the country's regular army or security forces. Recruited locally and often unpaid, Corps members are susceptible to al-Qaeda bribes. U.S. intelligence material suggests that the Corps has been infiltrated by al-Qaeda, with the terrorists sometimes donning their uniforms and venturing into Afghanistan. There is also growing evidence that al-Qaeda members have been posing as Afghan government troops to get around and attack U.S. patrols.

Some U.S. commanders think it is only a matter of time before the U.S. has to launch its own combat missions inside Pakistan. Until that happens, some think the military should consider using small squads of around 10 men to "bait them out," as one soldier suggested to another in a creek bed during the recent operation, adding, "Heck, I'll be bait." That, of course, might result in U.S. deaths, which could prove a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda. "You want to chase down every one of them, but do you want todo that on their terms or yours?" asks paratroops intelligence officer Captain Patrick Willis. Lately, it's not clear which side is dictating the terms, or even winning the battle.