STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
We're going to take you this morning to the heart of a troubled region. It's the most problematic terrain of a war, the region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. American troops are often on patrol there and we're about to hear a normal mission.
INSKEEP: The troop's day began with a mission to recover a damaged helicopter and later included a visit to the Pakistan side of the frontier. There the soldiers shared a meal with the border police and watched another group of heavily armed men.
NPR's Quil Lawrence traveled along.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)
QUIL LAWRENCE: On October 12th, a Chinook helicopter full of U.S. soldiers and Afghan border police landed near the Ghakhi Pass crossing with Pakistan, in Kunar Province. As the troops unloaded, a suspected Taliban fighter shot a rocket propelled grenade right into the open cargo bay, killing one and wounding several others. A firefight began, and the chopper's crew called for back up.
SCOTT MARK: (Unintelligible) They shot an RPG into the back of the Chinook.
LAWRENCE: Staff Sergeant Scott Mark of Alpha Company, 3-327 Infantry, was part of that backup. Never mind that many of his men had been out since 3:00 a.m. on foot patrol. They crammed into four Blackhawk helicopters, with all the water and ammunition they could pack, and flew to a Landing Zone - an LZ - at a more central base. Sergeant Mark prepped them for what was coming.
MARK: Every element out there is under contact right now. You got friendlies everywhere and Taliban everywhere. It's a hot LZ.
LAWRENCE: But as often happens to soldiers, the plans change. Still in full battle gear, they wait in the sun. Some fall asleep on the hard gravel next to the LZ. Seven hours later, it's dark, cold and finally they're moving out. The fight is mostly over but it's still a mess. The ruined Chinook - a titanic helicopter shaped like a banana with a propeller at each end - is still on the pad, and there's no room to land. First Sergeant Kenneth Bolin explains that only the left wheel of the Blackhawk is going to touch down.
KENNETH BOLIN: Left door exit, half the bird's going to be hanging over a cliff. So you know, the bird's going to be wobbly a little bit, so just keep your tempo, don't rush out the door, and make sure you're on solid ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)
LAWRENCE: The choppers blast the men with dust as they load up, and it's a short ride to the LZ. They put on night vision equipment and then leap out the left door of the Blackhawk. The moon has set, and it's too dark for them to recognize each other's faces. Mechanics are working furiously to take apart the disabled Chinook so it can be hoisted out by another chopper.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING AND HELICOPTERS)
LAWRENCE: Helicopters cast a silhouette against the stars as they drop off men and haul away equipment. The soldiers set off down a steep dirt track, with no lights, not even cigarettes allowed.
The men set up in an abandoned outpost. They find discarded cooking pots and some rather nice sleeping bags and fleece jackets - quite valuable in Afghanistan and strange things to leave behind. With guards set up, the men unpack and crash on the dirt floor, curled up for warmth.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)
LAWRENCE: Choppers still buzz overhead. Dawn draws back the curtain on a stunning view of the valley to the west. Razor wire marks the Pakistani border only 50 yards east. But a stranger sight lies across the road - a building that looks as if it was bombed. But it wasn't, says one soldier.
Unidentified Man #1: It wasn't blown up. They abandoned this. I'm not sure how long ago, but this is all self-destruction. That's what, like, the vehicles that we passed way up there - they just abandoned all these compounds. I'm not sure the reasoning behind it.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
LAWRENCE: The soldiers pick over an abandoned Toyota pick-up, brand new but with its engine removed. Up the hill half a dozen other vehicles were jammed together and burned. A large generator and some plumbing fixtures remain; there's an English instruction manual for a recoilless rifle.
(SOUNDBITE OF BULLET SHELLS)
LAWRENCE: The only sign of battle is a floor littered with brass shells from a belt-fed machine gun. The soldiers all refer to the structures as belonging to OGA. That stands for Other Government Agency, and it's slang for the CIA. The CIA did not respond to requests for comment. But whoever left this compound about two weeks ago scuttled tens of thousands of dollars in vehicles alone, and also left this part of the border unprotected and with no explanation to the soldiers here as to why they pulled out without waiting for replacements, which is particularly galling to the men in Alpha Company, because they fought very hard much of the summer, killings scores and losing some of their own, to clear the Taliban out of the valley to the west. Alpha's commanding officer, Captain Tom Billig, says now the Taliban are back.
TOM BILLIG: They've reseeded(ph) the valley a little bit, not to the extent that it was before when we first cleared it out. But I mean it's obvious from when the bird came in here and they took contact, and a result of this position being abandoned.
LAWRENCE: With no sign of enemy fighters, Captain Billig takes a walk down to the Pakistani border at Ghakhi Pass, 300 yards down the hill.
Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Salim, a tall Pakistani border guard with a pancake wool hat, greets the American.
AHMED SALIM: Anything we can do for you? You're just welcome. Anything you require, you just tell us.
LAWRENCE: The Pakistani army has made gains in the tribal areas across the way, according to U.S. officials, but there's still mistrust. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to cross the border here from safe havens inside Pakistan. Still, Colonel Salim invites the Americans across the border for lunch, pointing them up some steps to his outpost. Several of the GIs flinch.
Sitting on the roof are three dozen men with beards, turbans, and Kalashnikov rifles. They're not Taliban, Colonel Salim insists, but a pro-government militia.
SALIM: Don't think they are Taliban(ph). They are the local Lashgar who are working with us. Lashgar is the local population which is supporting the government.
LAWRENCE: They're an informal posse fighting against the Taliban, Colonel Salim says. And with the gunmen watching, he serves up a banquet for the Americans. Salim asked that their conversation not be recorded. But his first question for the Americans is: Why did you abandon that base without telling us? Without mentioning the other government agency, the captain simply says he was also surprised when the base was abandoned.
(SOUNDBITE OF JETS)
LAWRENCE: The long lunch ends abruptly when the colonel is called away, and the Americans start to walk back up the hill. Then they get some information from their interpreter that makes them walk a little faster.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, what he said was that the commander's gone, he can't control some of the guys. Some of them were spies for the Taliban, so he suggests we get out of here quickly.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
LAWRENCE: Breathing heavily from the altitude and the steep walk, the soldiers return to the abandoned spy base to find that the Afghan border guards have arrived. The guards emerge from one of the bombed-out rooms in a cloud of pungent smoke. Marijuana plants cover the hills like milk-weed.
A short while later, the head of the taskforce, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Joel Vowell, arrives to check on his troops.
JOEL VOWELL: Well, I'm damn proud of you guys. I think what's going to happen here is another two, two days or so, we're waiting for Afghan border police. So we're going to clear it and hold it and put the Afghan border police in here. And if they don't want to come in here, we're going to go home.
LAWRENCE: In fact, the guys 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 with the disabled Chinook.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)
LAWRENCE: The broken bird is ready to be hoisted out. After warming up on the hike, the Alpha guys sit for another several hours in the cold, sucking in rotor dust as choppers come and go.
Near midnight, the Chinook is lifted out like a bundle in a stork's beak. Then the guys from Alpha company saddle up and fly back to their base.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
INSKEEP: NPR photographer David Gilkey joined Quil on this patrol and you can see his amazing photographs - amazing how he uses light, almost like an old master. A slideshow of them is at NPR.org.
MONTAGNE: And we're glad you're listening to this public radio station. Remember: you can follow us throughout the day on our website, on smartphones, on the iPad, on Facebook, on Twitter.
INSKEEP: We're @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.