MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Joining me now is NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom is in Afghanistan. And, Tom, exactly where are you?
TOM BOWMAN: Well, Michele, right now, I'm in an American army base. It's called Forward Operating Base Salerno. We're outside the city of Khowst, in eastern Afghanistan, which is very mountainous. And actually, we're about 12 miles from the Pakistan border.
NORRIS: Curious about the troops there and their reaction to the president's address this evening. What do you hear from them about how large they think the military presence should be?
BOWMAN: Well, I've talked to a lot of troops, from sergeants up to general, and generally what they've been saying is that they hope that combat troops aren't removed. They say they're worried about losing momentum, that they've made a lot of gains against the Taliban in the past six to nine months, with the so-called surge in forces. But they've all said, like General David Petraeus has -he's the top commander here - that the gains they've made are fragile and reversible.
NORRIS: Tom, you mentioned that you're in eastern Afghanistan with an army unit there. Can you tell us a little bit more about what's been happening on the ground?
BOWMAN: Well, yesterday we stayed at a combat outpost. It was called Wilderness. And it's a short helicopter ride into the mountains from the city of Khowst, where we are now. And the soldiers there say that they often come under attack from small elements of Taliban fighters, maybe a half dozen or more. And actually, while we were at this outpost yesterday morning, we came under mortar attack ourselves.
NORRIS: Tell us a little bit more about what happened there.
BOWMAN: Well, I was actually coming back from brushing my teeth. It was shortly after 8:00 and there was this massive explosion, maybe 40 yards away or so, and soldiers started running out of their hooches and start screaming, mortars, mortars. And I just followed them as they ran and we kind of ducked into this concrete shelter, this bomb shelter. And I later learned that there were two days during the week when the Taliban tend to shoot at the Americans and the Afghans.
It's what they call Rocket Sunday and Target Tuesday. And this, of course, happened on a Tuesday. And my colleagues, Graham Smith and David Gilkey, were with me and they went to another shelter. And pretty soon after that, Graham moved out of the shelter with his recording equipment and he was looking for David, our photographer, and this is what it sounded like...
(Soundbite of explosion)
BOWMAN: Hey, David.
And you can also hear the dirt falling as well, kind of raining down on us. And shortly thereafter, I ran out of my shelter to look for Graham and David and then I couldn't find them and made my way to the combat operations center where they have these massive screens and were able to see the Taliban actually running away from this area along this dry riverbed. And they told me at the combat operations center the Taliban had shot about 12 mortar rounds in about 15 minutes or so.
NORRIS: Was anybody hurt?
BOWMAN: Well, an Afghan soldier was hit by the first round. He was seriously injured. He ended up with a head wound. Otherwise, nobody else was hurt and our NPR team was actually okay.
NORRIS: Tom, it sounds like what you're describing, that this is a, unfortunately, routine situation for these soldiers with these mortar attacks coming in. How did they respond in this case?
BOWMAN: Well, the Americans basically shot back with everything they had and this is what it sounded like when they were shooting at the Taliban.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
BOWMAN: You know, eventually, the U.S. brought in some drone aircrafts. We had those pictures that I saw of the Taliban running away. And actually, after that, they called in - well, the drone was able to pinpoint the Taliban running away with a laser. And they switched that over to an Apache attack helicopter.
When the Apache attack helicopter had the laser designator and he's looking down, he couldn't see any Taliban. And all he could see was this sort of - were these boulders down there. But then, what happened was, one of the boulders actually started flapping. And it turns out, three Taliban were hiding under a blanket and the Apache attack helicopter finally realized that they were Taliban. He started firing at them and killed all three. But the other five got away.
And, Michele, what's really interesting here of course is that for all their high-tech equipment, for all their firepower, the Americans were almost fooled by a simple blanket.
NORRIS: Tom Bowman, thank you very much and please stay safe.
BOWMAN: Okay, thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. He spoke with us from eastern Afghanistan. You can see pictures from that battle he described at NPR.org.
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