For U.S. Troops, Peril On The Afghan-Pakistan Border

Correction Nov. 15, 2010

The earlier web version of this story incorrectly referred to the Medal of Honor as the Congressional Medal of Honor.

  • The Pakistani flag waves on the Afghan border at the Ghakhi Pass in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province. The volatile border, marked by a coil of razor wire, has been a source of constant friction as insurgents pass through the mountainous region.
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    The Pakistani flag waves on the Afghan border at the Ghakhi Pass in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province. The volatile border, marked by a coil of razor wire, has been a source of constant friction as insurgents pass through the mountainous region.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • After a U.S. Chinook transport helicopter was disabled Oct. 12 by a grenade near the border, and the 101st U.S. Airborne Division has been summoned to help the survivors, who are engaged in small-arms fire. Lt. Col. Joel Vowell talks to the members of Alpha Co. about their rescue mission.
    Hide caption
    After a U.S. Chinook transport helicopter was disabled Oct. 12 by a grenade near the border, and the 101st U.S. Airborne Division has been summoned to help the survivors, who are engaged in small-arms fire. Lt. Col. Joel Vowell talks to the members of Alpha Co. about their rescue mission.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An Army Black Hawk helicopter is seen through a night vision lens as Alpha Company attempts to guide it to a landing near the disabled helicopter. The landing zone is too small, and the men must jump from their hovering chopper. By the time they reach the landing zone, the small-arms fire has ceased and they head down a steep mountain to safety.
    Hide caption
    An Army Black Hawk helicopter is seen through a night vision lens as Alpha Company attempts to guide it to a landing near the disabled helicopter. The landing zone is too small, and the men must jump from their hovering chopper. By the time they reach the landing zone, the small-arms fire has ceased and they head down a steep mountain to safety.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Capt. Thomas Billig walks with his men from Alpha Company on the Afghan side of the Ghakhi Pass. After the rescue attempt, they set up camp in an abandoned American outpost. There they discover some strange litter: nice sleeping bags, jackets and uniforms.
    Hide caption
    Capt. Thomas Billig walks with his men from Alpha Company on the Afghan side of the Ghakhi Pass. After the rescue attempt, they set up camp in an abandoned American outpost. There they discover some strange litter: nice sleeping bags, jackets and uniforms.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A U.S. soldier keeps watch at a recently abandoned American base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The soldiers refer to these compounds as belonging to the "OGA," or "Other Government Agency," common slang for the CIA.
    Hide caption
    A U.S. soldier keeps watch at a recently abandoned American base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The soldiers refer to these compounds as belonging to the "OGA," or "Other Government Agency," common slang for the CIA.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • The ruins of a once-thriving U.S. base near the Ghakhi Pass. Interviews with local officials suggest that the CIA built the massive compound years ago. Now it is charred and demolished. The CIA did not respond to questions from NPR about the base.
    Hide caption
    The ruins of a once-thriving U.S. base near the Ghakhi Pass. Interviews with local officials suggest that the CIA built the massive compound years ago. Now it is charred and demolished. The CIA did not respond to questions from NPR about the base.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • U.S. soldiers on patrol wend their way toward the Pakistan border. It appears that whoever was occupying the abandoned compounds left in a hurry.
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    U.S. soldiers on patrol wend their way toward the Pakistan border. It appears that whoever was occupying the abandoned compounds left in a hurry.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan National Border Police move supplies along a makeshift road near the Ghakhi Pass. They were flown to the border area to secure the abandoned posts after the U.S. helicopter was attacked. The abandoned sites are troubling for soldiers in Alpha Company. Many have spent summers fighting against Taliban in the valley to the west and, they say, relying on the "Other Government Agency" to keep...
    Hide caption
    Afghan National Border Police move supplies along a makeshift road near the Ghakhi Pass. They were flown to the border area to secure the abandoned posts after the U.S. helicopter was attacked. The abandoned sites are troubling for soldiers in Alpha Company. Many have spent summers fighting against Taliban in the valley to the west and, they say, relying on the "Other Government Agency" to keep the border secure.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kunar province climb the hills and footpaths near the Pakistan border. Whoever left the compound, about two weeks ago, left this part of the border unprotected, with no explanation to the soldiers here as to why they pulled out without waiting for replacements.
    Hide caption
    U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kunar province climb the hills and footpaths near the Pakistan border. Whoever left the compound, about two weeks ago, left this part of the border unprotected, with no explanation to the soldiers here as to why they pulled out without waiting for replacements.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A member of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps passes tea to Lt. Kenneth Kovach through coils of wire separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border here from safe havens inside Pakistan.
    Hide caption
    A member of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps passes tea to Lt. Kenneth Kovach through coils of wire separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border here from safe havens inside Pakistan.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • U.S. soldiers enjoy the tea.
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    U.S. soldiers enjoy the tea.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Billig shares a cup of tea and conversation with Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ahmed Salim at a border crossing at Ghakhi Pass. Salim invites the Americans across the border for lunch. On the roof are three dozen men with beards, turbans and Kalashnikov rifles. They're not Taliban, Salim insists, but pro-government militiamen.
    Hide caption
    Billig shares a cup of tea and conversation with Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ahmed Salim at a border crossing at Ghakhi Pass. Salim invites the Americans across the border for lunch. On the roof are three dozen men with beards, turbans and Kalashnikov rifles. They're not Taliban, Salim insists, but pro-government militiamen.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Flags fly at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. On the rooftops, the Lashgar are members of the local Pakistani population who support the government — an informal posse fighting against the Taliban, as Salim says.
    Hide caption
    Flags fly at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. On the rooftops, the Lashgar are members of the local Pakistani population who support the government — an informal posse fighting against the Taliban, as Salim says.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • U.S. soldiers look over at members of Pakistan's paramilitary force as they stand guard at the Ghakhi Pass border. The U.S. soldiers have no way of knowing who might be associated with the Taliban.
    Hide caption
    U.S. soldiers look over at members of Pakistan's paramilitary force as they stand guard at the Ghakhi Pass border. The U.S. soldiers have no way of knowing who might be associated with the Taliban.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Members of Alpha Company at an abandoned military outpost, where they are holding a secure position for the team rescuing the downed helicopter. The soldiers make a small fire to keep warm at the outpost, nearly 8,000 feet in altitude, while waiting for Afghan border guards to come secure the area.
    Hide caption
    Members of Alpha Company at an abandoned military outpost, where they are holding a secure position for the team rescuing the downed helicopter. The soldiers make a small fire to keep warm at the outpost, nearly 8,000 feet in altitude, while waiting for Afghan border guards to come secure the area.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • The following morning, Sgt. 1st Class Cliffton Robinson (center) of Alpha Company stands in the dust and debris of the rotor wash from a Black Hawk helicopter at the Ghakhi Pass. U.S. troops head back to the landing zone early and remove the downed helicopter.
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    The following morning, Sgt. 1st Class Cliffton Robinson (center) of Alpha Company stands in the dust and debris of the rotor wash from a Black Hawk helicopter at the Ghakhi Pass. U.S. troops head back to the landing zone early and remove the downed helicopter.
    David Gilkey/NPR

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Standing next to a dusty helipad in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month, Kenneth Bolin, the bullet-headed first sergeant of Alpha Company, gives his men a little advice.

"Don't go down the cliff!" he barks, instructing his men in how to disembark safely from their helicopter. "Left door exit, half the bird's going to be hanging over a cliff. Bird's going to be wobbly a bit. Don't rush out the door! Make sure you're on solid ground."

Afghanistan combines some of the world's roughest war-torn mountains with one of the world's most complicated political landscapes. American soldiers such as these navigate both kinds of terrain.

Like most of the troops in Afghanistan's Kunar River valley, Alpha Company of the 3-327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, had passed the first two weeks of October scrambling up and down the mountains looking for Linda Norgrove, the Scottish aid worker kidnapped in September.

They scaled 10,000-foot peaks searching for Norgrove and set up blocking positions to prevent her captors from slipping her into Pakistan.

On Oct. 8, Special Forces found Norgrove but accidentally killed her in a rescue attempt. Many of the soldiers in Alpha Company felt sad about it, but mostly they were dog-tired and ready to get back to their home bunks at a small mountain outpost called Monti.

The Soviets — and before them, the British — had a base in the same spot, commanding a view of the Kunar River valley as well as a few other mountain passes toward the border. Americans renamed it Monti after an Army sergeant who was awarded the Medal of Honor. In fact all four of the Medals of Honor given in Afghanistan came from heroic acts in Kunar province, which might say something about the desperate fighting that has gone on in the mountains along the Pakistani tribal areas.

1st Sgt. Kenneth Bolin watches a resupply helicopter circle overhead i i

hide captionAlpha Company's 1st Sgt. Kenneth Bolin, of the 101st Airborne Division, watches a resupply helicopter circle overhead on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

David Gilkey/NPR
1st Sgt. Kenneth Bolin watches a resupply helicopter circle overhead

Alpha Company's 1st Sgt. Kenneth Bolin, of the 101st Airborne Division, watches a resupply helicopter circle overhead on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

David Gilkey/NPR

A Rescue Call On The Pakistan Border

After the search for Norgrove ended, Alpha Company was just beginning to push out on foot patrols again last week when Capt. Thomas Billig got the call.

A U.S. Chinook helicopter — a titanic, banana-shaped craft with a propeller at each end — had landed at the Ghakhi Pass border crossing with Pakistan. When the gaping hatch of the chopper opened, an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade inside.

An Afghan interpreter died, several were wounded, and everyone on the landing zone took small-arms fire.

Next to the LZ, military shorthand for the helicopter landing zone, Staff Sgt. Scott Mark prepped his men for battle.

"Every element out there under contact right now. You got friendlies everywhere, and Taliban everywhere. It's a hot LZ, OK?" he said.

The troops scrambled — even though some of them had been out on a patrol that morning at 3 a.m. They crowded into Black Hawk helicopters, but then flew to another base to wait.

Sitting in the hot sun next to a dusty helicopter landing zone with all the water and ammunition they could carry, some of them fell asleep on the gravel. Darkness brought a chill with it, and Alpha Company didn't move out again until midnight.

Hanging Off A Cliff In The Dark Of Night

By that time the battle was over, but the Chinook was still a mess and blocking the helipad. So the men jumped from a wobbling helicopter, with just one wheel on the ground and the other side of the bird hanging over a cliff at 7,000 feet.

U.S. soldiers hold a security position for a team working on a disabled helicopter i i

hide captionSoldiers with Alpha Company overlook Pakistan to left and Afghanistan to the right while holding a security position for the rescue team working nearby on the disabled helicopter.

David Gilkey/NPR
U.S. soldiers hold a security position for a team working on a disabled helicopter

Soldiers with Alpha Company overlook Pakistan to left and Afghanistan to the right while holding a security position for the rescue team working nearby on the disabled helicopter.

David Gilkey/NPR

The moon had long ago set and even with night vision goggles the men couldn't see each other's faces. They walked past the broken Chinook, which mechanics were stripping down so it could be hoisted out by another chopper.

Alpha Company walked down a steep mountain track, wondering if there were any more insurgents on the hillside.

Sgt. Jon Horton radioed with the jets and choppers up above — earlier, they had dropped a 500-pound bomb on a compound up the ridgeline.

"That house that has that flag on it? There are two individuals, he's just confirmed," Horton said into the handset. "But he's not going to fly over it because he's pretty sure it's Pakistan. Yeah, it is. Well, they're watching us."

After walking about half a mile, the men from Alpha Company stopped at their objective, a series of bunkered outposts astride the road.

They cleared the rooms out but discovered some strange litter — nice sleeping bags, fleece jackets and uniforms — quite valuable in Afghanistan, and strange things to leave behind. The men were tired, so they established a guard duty while the others pulled out their sleeping bags and crashed on the dirt floor, curled up for warmth.

A chilly dawn drew back the curtain on a stunning view of the valley to the west into Afghanistan and razor wire marking the Pakistan border just 50 yards east. But a stranger sight lay across the dirt road — a concrete building that looked as if a bomb was dropped on it.

But it wasn't, said one soldier.

The Mystery Of The Abandoned Base

"It wasn't blown up, they abandoned this," he said. "This was all self-destruction. Like the vehicles that we passed way up there, they just abandoned all these compounds. I'm not sure the reasoning behind it."

Part of the reasoning has to do with who left this compound in such a hurry — the soldiers all refer to them as the OGA, which stands for "Other Government Agency" and is common slang for the CIA. The CIA declined to comment.

Soldiers with Alpha Company of the 101st Airborne Division get some much needed rest. i i

hide captionSoldiers with Alpha Company get a moment of rest after being up all night helping to secure a disabled helicopter and then clearing an abandoned U.S. compound on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border.

David Gilkey/NPR
Soldiers with Alpha Company of the 101st Airborne Division get some much needed rest.

Soldiers with Alpha Company get a moment of rest after being up all night helping to secure a disabled helicopter and then clearing an abandoned U.S. compound on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border.

David Gilkey/NPR

But interviews with Pakistani border guards and U.S. soldiers, and some Pakistani press reports, all suggest that the CIA built this massive base compound more than two years ago. The construction included a road, the helicopter landing zone and several hard structures, including one at the top of the mountain called "Camp Karzai."

Now it's all charred and demolished. Up the hill, half a dozen vehicles are jammed together and burned. Another brand-new pickup has had the engine stripped out. An Army generator sits in one demolished building.

The occupants appear to have left in a hurry, though with few signs of battle, other than a floor littered with shells from a belt-fed machine gun.

The sight of hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted doesn't go down well with the soldiers in Alpha Company, but they've got a more personal gripe.

Many of them spent the summer fighting in the valley to the west — killing scores of Taliban and losing some of their own — in an operation called Strong Eagle meant to clear the Taliban out of the area. The "OGA" base at the Ghakhi Pass served to keep the border under control, the soldiers say.

The Taliban 'Reseeding' The Valley

But when this base was evacuated, all the U.S. military assets in this part of Kunar were looking for Norgrove, and there was no time to send anyone to the border.

The soldiers in Alpha Company draw a clear line from the abandoned compounds — what they say was a spy base — the rocket-propelled grenade that hit the Chinook helicopter.

Army Lt. Kenneth Kovach speaks to Pakistani border police over wire that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan i i

hide captionArmy Lt. Kenneth Kovach speaks to members of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps over coils of concertina wire that separate Afghanistan and Pakistan.

David Gilkey/NPR
Army Lt. Kenneth Kovach speaks to Pakistani border police over wire that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan

Army Lt. Kenneth Kovach speaks to members of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps over coils of concertina wire that separate Afghanistan and Pakistan.

David Gilkey/NPR

"The [Taliban has] reseeded the valley a little bit — not to the extent it was before when we first cleared it out," says Billig, Alpha Company's commander. "The bird [Chinook] came here and took contact, as a result of this position being abandoned."

The day turns out quiet, and a few of the officers in Alpha Company make an effort at a little international diplomacy. Lt. Ken Kovach clambers down the hill behind the outpost to chat with the Pakistani border guards, who seemed just as curious.

It gets a little testy when one Pakistani tells him, with rough translation by an Afghan interpreter, that he thinks Americans don't care about Pakistan. "How can he believe that?" Kovach says. "We have our helicopters giving aid for all the flooded areas? How can he believe we don't want to help them?"

Tempers are soothed quickly, when the Pakistanis bring milky chai, which they pass carefully in white teacups through the razor wire to the Americans.

Billig, the company commander, goes a step further some hours later and strolls with a few of his men down to the Ghakhi border point, where his counterpart on the Pakistani side, Lt. Colonel Ahmed Salim, is.

"Anything we can do for you, you're just welcome," says Salim, a tall man with a neatly trimmed mustache.

Mistrust Along the Border

American officials say the Pakistani army has made gains in Bajaur, the tribal district across the way, but there's still mistrust. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border at this point from safe havens inside Pakistan.

There are misgivings on the other side as well: All of the Pakistani border guards have put reflective tape in a cross on top of their helmets — to keep Americans drones from bombing them, they say.

Still, Salim invites the Americans across the border for lunch, pointing them up some steps to his outpost. Several of the U.S. soldiers flinch. On the rooftop are three dozen men with beards, turbans and Kalashnikov rifles. But they're not Taliban, Salim insists.

Army Capt. Thomas Billig shares a cup of tea and lunch with Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ahmed Salim at the border i i

hide captionArmy Capt. Thomas Billig shares a cup of tea and lunch with Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ahmed Salim at the Pakistani side of the border crossing at Ghakhi Pass. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border there from safe havens inside Pakistan.

David Gilkey/NPR
Army Capt. Thomas Billig shares a cup of tea and lunch with Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ahmed Salim at the border

Army Capt. Thomas Billig shares a cup of tea and lunch with Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ahmed Salim at the Pakistani side of the border crossing at Ghakhi Pass. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border there from safe havens inside Pakistan.

David Gilkey/NPR

"Don't think they are Talibs," he says with a laugh. "They are the local Lashgar who are working with us — the local population which is supporting the government."

Billig accepts the invitation, despite some strained looks from his men, and walks up the stairs to a Pakistani banquet of chicken, mutton, rice, lentils and yogurt. The conversation is friendly, but it starts with a rather pointed question from the host about the empty bases up the hill.

"Why didn't you tell us they were pulling out?" Salim wants to know, adding that his border guards would have adjusted if they knew the other side was suddenly going to be empty.

Without mentioning the "OGA," Billig simply nods in agreement, and allows that the abrupt departure came as a surprise to him as well.

Taliban In Their Midst?

The long lunch ends when the Pakistani colonel is called away, and the Americans walk back up the hill. Full bellies, heavy flak jackets, and the altitude at 7,000 feet have everyone moving a bit slowly, but then they get some information from their interpreter that makes them walk a little faster.

The interpreter tells the soldiers that some of the Pakistani commander's men are spies for the Taliban. "So he suggests we get out of here quickly," a soldier tells Billig.

Returning to the abandoned compound, the soldiers find Afghan border guards have arrived. They emerge from one of the bombed-out rooms in a cloud of pungent smoke; marijuana plants cover the hills like milkweed.

Some of the members of the Afghan force, who appear to be less stoned than others, talk for a while with the Americans about how many reinforcements they'll need to hold this border.

But it's a bit of a fiction: The Afghan border police don't have the helicopters to resupply this place, and the road from the center of Kunar is far too dangerous for them to travel. And it's not clear the Americans will be manning it either, despite the strategic importance of the pass.

Later in the afternoon, Lt. Col. Joel Vowell shows up to award a couple of citations.

"I'm damn proud of you guys," Vowell says.

U.S. Intelligence Official Responds

Quil Lawrence's story described deserted compounds in the border area that U.S. troops  believed had been abruptly abandoned by the CIA. U.S. and Pakistani troops in the area expressed frustration that the border was no longer being as effectively guarded. The CIA declined to comment. After this story aired Thursday on "Morning Edition" and was published on NPR.org, a U.S. intelligence official released the following statement: "This was an orderly closure of a U.S. government facility that involved coordination with the U.S. military."

"I think what's going to happen here is another two days or so, we're waiting for Afghan border police. So we're going to clear it hold it and then put the Afghan border police in here. And if they don't want to come in here, we're going to go home. Back to Monti," he says.

In fact, the men from Alpha Company don't even stay the night. With dusk comes an order to pack up and march up the hill again to the landing zone, where the broken Chinook helicopter is ready to be hoisted away.

After getting warmed up on the hike, the Alpha guys sit for another several hours in the cold, as choppers come and go, blasting them with dust. Near midnight the Chinook is lifted out like a bundle in a stork's beak.

Then the guys from Alpha make it back to Outpost Monti in the small hours of the morning, take showers and get ready for more foot patrols in the hills of Kunar.

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