The American soldiers at the Shkin firebase in Afghanistan live precariously on the front line, a target for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who launch frequent strikes from camps in nearby Pakistan. This border area is an unforgiving landscape of rocky hills and scrub pines where the enemy can nestle into position at close range while remaining invisible. When the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division venture out in humvee patrols along dusty tracks they have dubbed Chevy, Pontiac and Camaro, they know how easily a hunter can become prey. As U.S. Army Colonel Rodney Davis puts it, "Shkin is the evilest place in Afghanistan."
The fighting in Afghanistan may have slipped below the radar of most Americans back home, but for the soldiers on the ground things appear to be getting worse. Attacks on the Americans and their Afghan allies are increasing. The enemy is becoming better organized and better armed. Despite the presence of 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the influence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is spreading. A new U.N. security report reckons that one-third of the country is too dangerous for aid distribution.
Just ask the boys at the Shkin firebase. On Sept. 29, two platoons from the 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division found themselves locked in a 12-hour battle against a few dozen al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas. It was the fiercest combat U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have seen in more than 18 months and an extreme test of valor under fire. An American was killed by a sniper; quick thinking by U.S. soldiers averted many more deaths. "Most of us feel this strange mixture of sorrow and exhilaration," says Major Paul Wille. "It was the perfect fight."
In this battle, victory went to the U.S. forces. But it seems evident that the enemy is growing bigger and bolder. "During the jihad against the Soviets, the fighters were crossing over in threes and fours," says a European diplomat in Kabul, referring to the long guerrilla struggle that finally drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1989. Now, says the diplomat, who has access to intelligence reports, "they are coming across in hundreds." The U.N. Security Council met in closed consultations late last week to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. "It is really very bad, much worse than Iraq," says a senior ambassador who took part. He fears the country could devolve into a lawless free-for-all, with international troops caught in the middle.
Just two miles from Pakistan's border, the Shkin firebase acts as a choke point on fighters coming out of the mountains. The 300 men at the fort have a single mission: to hunt down the enemy. They are equipped with artillery, fleets of armored humvees and a communications network that lets them call in air strikes within minutes. These days they focus too on how not to offend local sensibilities, no longer searching veiled women, for example. ("But if I find an Afghan woman who is 6 ft. 5 in."--Osama bin Laden's height--"I'm sure as hell going to have her searched," says Sergeant Vernon Story.) Soldiers are also learning to be more wary regarding tips about al-Qaeda suspects; the U.S. has often been duped into taking sides in tribal feuds.