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Uptick in Afghan attacks tests US forces

In a remote corner of Afghanistan, winning hearts and minds is proving difficult.

CAMP WILDERNESS, PAKTIA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — With the first high-pitched cracks of AK-47 fire, the Afghan National Army soldiers jumped out of their unarmored Ford Ranger pick-up truck and disappeared behind a small hill.

The gunner on the American armored truck behind them, Sgt. E. Daniel Witherspoon of 1st platoon, Bravo Troop, 1-33 Cavalry Regiment, yelled for his driver to stop.

“Somebody’s shootin’ at us!” He shouted into the truck’s cabin. He swiveled his head along with the turret on his Mark 19 grenade launcher to detect the source. Then he pulled the trigger. The 40 millimeter grenades left the barrel with a “thunk” and a few seconds later exploded in a cloud of dirt on the steep mountainside to the truck’s right.

The Americans yelled for the Afghans to get back in their trucks, but they didn’t budge. Unable to move forward, the convoy of four U.S. armored vehicles and two ANA trucks was now stuck in the kill zone, with an estimated 12 to 15 Taliban shooting at them from a high ridgeline across a steep valley to their right.

An explosion echoed through the valley; a rocket propelled grenade had slammed into the side of the mountain below the troops.

It wasn’t the first time the Taliban attacked Bravo troop since the unit arrived to this rugged, remote area of Paktia Province, near the Afghan border with Pakistan, in January.

The engagement here is an example of just how hard it will be to achieve the goals of securing the Afghan population and bringing government and development to the largely rural country.

Paktia Province is not as violent as Afghanistan’s southern provinces, where a planned operation in Kandahar is underway this summer and fall to take back areas largely controlled by the Taliban. But that might simply be because there are no NATO troops contesting large swaths of the province’s sparsely populated mountains. The 1-33’s battalion commander estimates that he doesn’t have the manpower to reach 15 percent of the territory in his area of operations. His men rarely visit another 15 percent of the area.

As a result, Taliban and Haqqani Network fighters have set up safe havens and even training camps in the remote valleys from which they can launch attacks on the U.S. and Afghan soldiers, intimidate villagers and halt badly needed development projects.

Construction has stopped on the $100 million USAID project to pave and improve the most strategic route in the area, the Khost-Ghardez Highway. Militants attacked the construction company’s guards one night this spring and set fire to the equipment. The contractor has refused to continue work until security improves.

The construction firm’s compound is located right next to Bravo troop’s headquarters, called Camp Wilderness. Plywood buildings sprayed with insulation make the base look like an adobe village. Bravo troop has two platoons stationed at Wilderness, which is tucked into a ravine between the high mountain peaks.

As the snow has melted on those mountains, the pace of attacks has increased in Bravo Troop’s area.