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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 July 2005, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Stung in an Afghan 'hornets' nest'

Andrew North
BBC News at US Camp Tillman, Afghan-Pakistan border

Camp Tillman
Camp Tillman - in memory of football star and soldier Pat Tillman
A routine mission for a small unit of US troops based here turned into a fight for their lives when they came up against a group of suspected Taleban militants along the border with Pakistan.

It did not make any headlines. It was just another incident among many in this volatile region.

But it gives an insight into why the US-led coalition is having such difficulty defeating the insurgency that has affected much of eastern and southern Afghanistan for the past two years.

It was 25 June. Second Lt Louis Fernandez had led seven members of his platoon to the top of Peak 2911.

A distinctive, bulging mountain straddling the frontier, it gets its name from its height in metres.

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The night before, a US artillery battery had shelled the peak after lights had been seen there.

The suspicion was that insurgents might be using it as a launch site to fire rockets on American and Afghan troops - an almost daily occurrence for units based along the border.

'Taking fire'

Lt Fernandez and his men from the 2/504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, had been ordered to do a "battle damage assessment", to see if anything had been hit.

Second Lt Louis Fernandez
We were hugging the dirt, most of the time just praying to God that He was there for us. And He was definitely there for us
Second Lt Louis Fernandez

An Afghan officer, Capt Mohammed Islamuddin, and two interpreters were with them.

They found nothing except a well-travelled trail. They decided to follow it. As they moved down the path, Capt Islamuddin says he spotted a man in local clothes about 200-300 metres away, carrying a Kalashnikov.

Staff Sgt McKenna Miller says he saw another man near some trees raising his Kalashnikov.

Sgt Miller raised his weapon. "I asked for permission to fire."

"I told Sgt Miller to shoot," says 22-year-old Lt Fernandez. "He pulled the trigger and hit the guy right in the head and put him down.

"Immediately after, we started taking fire from another direction," he says.

Afghan-Pakistan border
A lot of terrain on the border provides little cover

"That's when pretty much everything unravelled," says Sgt Miller, a veteran of Iraq and the Balkans.

They realised they were up against "not two, but approximately 15 to 20 individuals", with a barrage of fire coming down on the US and Afghan troops.

Where they were though, there was almost no cover. The only escape was to move back towards the summit, the soldiers taking it in turns to provide covering fire while others scrambled up the slope, fighting for breath in the thin air at this altitude.

"I was starting to pray as I was running back," says Sgt Juan Carlos Coca, the unit's radio operator. "There were rounds flying everywhere."

"We were definitely fighting for our lives," says Sgt Miller.

Pursuers' advantage

For Sgt Coca, this is his second time in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne.

In between, he was also in Iraq, in southern Baghdad.

Inside a Chinook
Inside a Chinook: US forces have strict rules along the border

"I expected this to be the easiest deployment of the three," he admits. "But so far it's been the hardest. We've basically come to a hornets' nest, here on the border with Pakistan."

The paratroopers say they were firing constantly to try to keep their assailants back.

But "we were getting surrounded", says Sgt Coca. "And we had no comms at all. The mountain was blocking radio signals, so they couldn't call for back-up.

In this terrain, their pursuers had the advantage.

"They move a lot faster on these mountains than we do," says Lt Fernandez.

"They know all the routes. And they're just in better shape when it comes to this. They're carrying no weight. We're carrying about 60 or 70 pounds (27kg-31kg) of equipment, so we're a lot slower."

Their lightly loaded attackers came closer and closer.

"They got within 20 or 30 metres," says Lt Fernandez. "You could see those little tan hats they wear.

"We were hugging the dirt, most of the time just praying to God that He was there for us. And He was definitely there for us, to just have one guy take a ricochet round, with the amount of fire they were putting down on us."

That one guy was Pte Ted Smith. A round hit him in the face, but went straight through his cheek. "Blood was just pouring out of him," says Sgt Miller, "but he just kept on firing."

Fortress

Pte Smith is expected to return to duty here soon at Camp Tillman - named after Pat Tillman, the American footballer who famously turned down millions of dollars to join the US military after 11 September but who died in a "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan in April last year.

It's easy for the enemy to shoot at us here in Afghanistan and then they just run a couple of hundred metres into Pakistan and we can't do anything
Sgt Juan Carlos Coca

When you visit this small, heavily defended redoubt, it conjures up images of old French Foreign Legion fortresses deep in hostile North African rebel territory.

Just across the border from the base - which sits near a tiny hamlet of mud-brick houses - is the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan.

That has long regarded as one of the main areas where Taleban and also al Qaeda militants have been sheltering. There have been reports of Osama Bin Laden hiding there.

Although Pakistani forces were involved in bloody clashes with some of these groups last year, there are concerns that many still remain and have even bolstered their numbers.

Based on intelligence received afterwards, the US soldiers believe they killed eight of their attackers. But talking about the fire fight to the BBC a few days later, all of them say they were lucky not to have lost anyone.

When they finally reached higher ground and safety "we were totally out of breath, we could barely speak. We had almost no ammunition left," says Lt Fernandez, who was also inspired by 9/11 to join the forces. He signed up on 14 September 2001.

Up here, Sgt Coca could get through on the radio, to call for air support.

A-10 aircraft arrived. But the soldiers say the pilots were not permitted to open fire with their machine gun, or drop any ordnance because the militants were in Pakistani territory.

Sgt Miller and Sgt Coca
Sgt Miller (L) and Sgt Coca: A fight for their lives

"That just totally frustrates all of us," says Sgt Coca. "It's easy for the enemy to shoot at us here in Afghanistan and then they just run a couple of hundred metres into Pakistan and we can't do anything. They're untouchable.

"We have that problem all the time," he says.

Sgt Miller agrees: "That's their safe haven, because they know that we can't go over the border and they try to use that to their advantage."

The exact rules of engagement for US forces based along the border are secret.

But it is clear from reports of different American operations that they do have some leeway.

And at times during the battle at Peak 2911, this US unit did end up in Pakistani territory.

But American troops are not allowed to chase attackers across the border.

Lt Fernandez says if they are "in pursuit of an enemy" they sometimes call Pakistani government forces on the other side.

But asked if US forces here feel they get help from the Pakistanis, he says: "I can't say that we do. No, not really."

Madrassas

Capt Islamuddin is more blunt. "Pakistan is interfering in Afghanistan. They are sending the bad guys here. They say there are cooperating, but they are not."

Taleban fighters
The Taleban use the advantage of local terrain knowledge

Capt Islamuddin has been based on the border with his 3rd Battalion for the past five months and says he has seen many clashes. "Many of them are foreigners," he says, "not Afghans."

It is a claim Afghan government officials often make about those behind the attacks across the south and east.

But the evidence is often hard to find. Asked to give more detail, Capt Islamuddin says he has seen the bodies of many militants close up after battles he has been involved in.

"There are some stupid Afghans among them," he says. "But most of them are Waziris [from Pakistan's Waziristan tribal agency], Chechens and Arabs. They are all coming from the madrassas [religious schools] in Pakistan."

Officially, the US military says Pakistan is cooperating closely with its efforts to defeat the insurgency and US generals frequently praise their counterparts across the border.

That is not how it appears to those on the frontline, to the young US and Afghan troops actually doing the fighting.


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