Sunday, May 02, 2004 Speak softly and carry a big gun: Into the hinterlands with the special forces (5/10/04) : "Yet if the hunt for the world's most-wanted man were all that the soldiers of ODA 936 needed to worry about, their job would be far more simple. Instead, the Special Forces team was inserted into the Pesch Valley in northeastern Afghanistan in December with only the vaguest of orders to carry out a complex mission: Develop an intelligence network, earn the trust of the locals, track down terrorists, and build an army of Afghan men who for decades have known nothing but war. The team's area of operations is a laboratory of the type of counterinsurgency that hasn't been tried since Vietnam, and U.S. News was granted rare access to its work. If the larger U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is to bear fruit, it will depend in no small part on the quiet accumulation of victories in places like the hardscrabble Pesch Valley.
Nestled in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains just 20 miles from the Pakistani border in Kunar province, ODA 936's base in the town of Nangalam is equal parts listening post and training camp in one of the world's most inhospitable places. Unlike the more fortified firebases elsewhere along the border, Camp Blessing is far removed from the safety of artillery and helicopter support. Known as an 'A Camp,' it is the first of its kind in hostile territory that U.S. Special Forces have built in more than 30 years. Only 14 soldiers live in camp, along with a platoon of marines beefing up security. 'This place is pretty hard to defend,' says Jim (no last names of ODA 936 members allowed), looking out at the steep mountain bluffs encircling the compound. 'It's kind of like Little Big Horn.'
This is perhaps an unfortunate analogy, given that the Special Forces commander for Kunar province is a man with the last name Custer. At the same time, being in 'Indian country' is a fact of life around Camp Blessing, especially as ODA 936 builds up its network of local informants to track the movement of the al Qaeda cells that periodically attack the base. While the CIA believes men like Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, spend most of their time on the Pakistan side of the border, places like the lawless Pesch make a natural safe haven for al Qaeda operatives. 'As this war changes, the enemy goes deeper into the hinterlands,' says Col. Walter Herd, the top special operations commander in Afghanistan. 'And that's where we need to be.'

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