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Afghanistan: Reporter's Notebook -- Buildup For U.S. Offensive No Secret

Pentagon officials confirmed weeks ago that a spring offensive is planned against suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is in southern Afghanistan with troops from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division and provides this account of the military buildup.

Kandahar, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For a quarter of a century, offensives by various powers and militia factions have been a rite of spring in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials have confirmed that their offensive will be a major sweep by U.S. forces along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A U.S. logistical buildup reportedly has been under way for more than three weeks on Pakistan's side of the border -- with C-17 cargo planes flying in every night to places like the Shahbaz air base in the northwest of the country. The vehicles and equipment carried by those planes reportedly are being sent on to a series of bases in Pakistan, where U.S. soldiers -- including Special Forces -- are said to be operating.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who faces significant domestic political pressure against U.S. deployments in his country, has repeatedly denied the presence of U.S. troops there.

Deployments on the Afghan side of the border are no secret, however. In recent weeks, they have included U.S. Special Forces, as well as combat teams from the U.S. Army and the Marines Corps. At the Bagram and Kandahar airfields, U.S. Air Force and Navy crews have been preparing their aircraft for the time when they are called on to provide air support to ground troops.

Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, the chief spokesman for the antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan, laughs when asked about the planned offensive. Then he responds with a question: "We've had an offensive every other season. So why wouldn't we launch one in the spring?"

Lieutenant General David Barno, the U.S. Central Command official in charge of military operations in Afghanistan, had raised expectations by saying he expects that Osama bin Laden and Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar would be captured this year. But he later said "there are no certainties in the war-fighting business out here." The comments were eerily familiar. During last year's spring offensive, U.S. officials also said they were tightening the noose around bin Laden.

Nevertheless, Islamabad has launched a series of sweeps in the autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan. Dozens of suspected Al-Qaeda fighters have been captured. And reporters are now trying to position themselves as close as possible to what the U.S. military calls "forward operations bases" -- or "fire bases" -- in Afghanistan ahead of the spring offensive.

A fire base is a fortified, temporary base at the forward edge of a potential battle area and is used for the deployment of combat troops. While both Pakistan and the United States have denied the presence of U.S. troops at bases on Pakistan's side of the border, the fire bases in Afghanistan are well-known to reporters and local residents.
Particular attention is now focusing on the fire bases near the towns of Shkin and Orgun -- which are both in Paktika Province just across the border from Pakistan's tribal area of South Waziristan. That is an area were bin Laden was thought to have been sheltering after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Last weekend, Hilferty says, U.S. Special Forces killed nine suspected Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters who were attempting to move into an attacking position near the so-called Orgun-E fire base. Hilferty says the nine were part of a unit of 30 to 40 armed men.

Indeed, the exact location of that U.S. base has been known to anti-coalition militants for months. Private First Class William Settle, a member of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, told RFE/RL that he was in a bunker at Orgun-E two months ago when it was hit by one of 12 rockets launched at Orgun-E in a single day.

Anti-coalition forces also recently began mortar and rocket attacks against a U.S. fire base called Courage that was set up two months ago near Zabol Province's capital of Qalat. A relief worker from the International Red Crescent Society was killed near the town last week. A senior U.S. Army commander in charge of forces at Qalat has declared the fire base off limits to reporters for the immediate future.

A fire base near Deh Rawood, the hometown of Mullah Omar, has been targeted repeatedly by suspected Taliban fighters since it was built. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Duffy of the 10th Mountain Division told RFE/RL that he thinks the attackers are a small group of Taliban "fanatics" who do not represent the population as a whole.

"There have been combat operations -- ongoing operations -- in Oruzgun. There is a very small fire base there [near Deh Rawood]. It's somewhat isolated. It's in a mountainous area, so it gives some advantages to an opposition, to an enemy. That enemy would not have any chance of surviving if they attacked any of the other bases. So I think part of it has to do with it [being] a small U.S. presence. It's a symbol. If you attack that, you are attacking the big symbol. They've been ineffective. Their attacks have been poorly timed. They've been unsuccessful. A lot of the attacks have been stymied by just local intelligence. The people say, 'Hey, there's people in the area who are planning an attack.' Or, 'They're putting a mine on a road.' They let us know. We're getting support from the people," Duffy said.

"We've had an offensive every other season. So why wouldn't we launch one in the spring?"
Immediately south in Kandahar, the Ghecko fire base is more typical of the facilities that have seen significant deployments of Special Forces and regular troops. Four-meter-high walls have been built around the area, and there are guard towers at the corners.

To the south of Kandahar, several teams of Special Forces in military vehicles have been seen in recent days moving along the highway that passes to the Spin Boldak border crossing and Pakistan.

Chinook transport helicopters also have been landing and departing in recent days from the Kandahar airfield -- the main transport hub in southern Afghanistan for the U.S. military. Special equipment on the Chinooks indicates they may be carrying Special Forces from Iraq into Afghanistan. The modifications also indicate the Chinooks have the range to drop troops or supplies as far away as northwest Pakistan.

Indeed, some reporters in Afghanistan have chosen to stake out areas farther east, like the Salerno fire base near the southeastern town of Khost. U.S. Marines have been deploying there in recent weeks. Special Forces also have been positioned nearby for more than a year at a fire base near Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia Province.

There also are fire bases near the town of Ghazni and near the eastern Afghan cities of Jalalabad and Asadabad. The latter two could serve as launching points for operations into the rugged Hindu Kush mountains that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

While reporters speculate on which fire base will be the best place to monitor the coming offensive, one U.S. military official suggested that all could be involved in the campaign. Rather than being a localized operation, the official told RFE/RL the spring offensive would be “widespread.”