Battalion will tackle recon along Afghanistan-Pakistan border
TANI DISTRICT, KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Ready or not, insurgents: Here we come.
That could be the rallying cry for soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 71st Cavalry Squadron, who plan to turn the restive Afghanistan-Pakistan border into a massive, high stakes game of hide-and-seek over the next 12 months.
The unit, part of the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, N.Y., has an unusual role in Afghanistan’s southern Khowst province: to conduct reconnaissance operations, with special attention to the highly porous border. While smaller Army and Marine units previously have conducted reconnaissance operations, never has an entire battalion been dedicated solely to reconnaissance, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Joe Fenty.
“We’re the first unit in the Army that’s been used this way,” he said. “I’m going to do something very different. I’m going to spend more time focusing on the insurgents.”
Afghan and American officials say they know that insurgents traffic weapons and fighters across the border, which is not clearly marked or heavily policed. Local officials say their province is a known stomping ground for followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a pro-Taliban, pro-al-Qaida militia leader who locals say has been responsible for a rash of recent attacks in the province.
“The problem is being created by the border,” said Tani district sub-governor Badi Zaman, a former mujahedeen fighter who used Pakistan as his base of operations during the Soviet-Afghan war. “People are just sneaking over. There are militant camps there.
“Hekmatyar has been operating in this area for quite awhile,” said Zaman, who said he hid out in the mountains for four years during Taliban rule and still wears a belt of Soviet bullets, draped bandito style across his chest. “Last week there was an attack on my compound. It was from those guys.”
Fenty said his battalion intends to catch insurgents as they cross into Afghanistan; however, there is one line they will not cross.
“Absolutely, no, we are not going to cross the border,” into Pakistan, he said. “We are going to catch them as they come across.”
Zaman says the battalion’s mission is welcome news.
“We need to focus on the border in this area,” he said. “All of the people who are bringing mines, [improvised explosive devices], weapons, they are infiltrating from the border.”
Local officials offered short-notice assistance, intelligence and even guides to the area — but, surprisingly, drew the line at receiving too much information from American forces.
“Military things are secret,” said a village elder who identified himself only as Gen. Rasul, who said he also was a former mujahedeen fighter. “I don’t want to know what you are going to do there or knowing how long you are going to stay there.”
“If you are doing anything in this district,” Zaman echoed, “do not tell anyone before you do it.”
Leaders say they realize the impossibility of wiping out the Afghan insurgency in 12 months. Fenty said his sights are set higher than finding small-scale insurgent groups.
“If we can begin to identify lanes and staging areas and cut off some of these (bomb-making) cells that are developing, that will begin to be success for us,” Fenty said.
The biggest challenge won’t be the danger or the adverse conditions.
“Finding them,” Fenty said, “is going to be the hardest part.”