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RELATED STORY:U.S., Afghan forces are lone guards between Taliban routes(with photo gallery)

ON THE AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN BORDER — It started with mortars aimed at the outpost.

Sgt. 1st Class Chad Rickard and two other U.S. soldiers were out on patrol with 10 Afghan National Army soldiers, visiting villages south of Spera Combat Outpost, when they heard the explosion.

The ANA guards up at border observation post — Spera’s only front line of defense — sent six guys along the ridge on a mountain called TRP Red to see if they could determine where the sound was firing from.

That’s when the radio alarm calls came over.

"They realized there were 100 Taliban fighters pushing up the ridge," Rickard said. "The ANA were asking permission to retreat. They were afraid of being overrun."

At this little combat outpost on the border with Pakistan, March 8 was another rough day in an escalating war. The Taliban came up in droves, and a handful of U.S. and Afghan forces simply did what they were there for: defend their outpost against a bitter enemy who wants them gone.

Spera sits at the crux of two key insurgent routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan, blocking their free flow of men and arms. To the Taliban, Spera’s presence alone is a provocation.

"We know we are in the right place because the enemy attacks us," said Rickard, of the California National Guard Joint Headquarters. "The fact that we are continually attacked means we are a thorn in their side and we are right where we need to be."

Rickard heard the ANA’s panicked call. The patrol diverted east and began a fierce climb straight up the mountain. It was a race to the top, the Taliban on one side, being held off by six ANA on the ridge, and Rickard’s patrol pushing up the other.

Back at Spera, mortars were landing. Maj. Nicholas Fleischmann, of Fresno, Calif., monitored the battle as American and ANA soldiers assumed battle stations. They fired onto the backside of the mountain and Fleischmann called for air support. He sent out a second patrol of reinforcements.

Taking heavy fire, the Taliban mortars ceased and Rickard’s group made the ridge.

"It took a good 45 minutes of straight climbing," Rickard said. "I linked up with the head guy on Red. The six guys were doing an outstanding job of holding the Taliban back."

Moments later, the jets arrived. They dropped to tree level and fired their afterburners, sending the enemy to the ground as Rickard plugged his guys into the ANA troops across the ridge line.

For the next hour, Rickard radioed coordinates to the jet bombers. It was a bitter fight. The Taliban were well-organized and determined, and the stakes were high.

"If they could get onto Red, they are already higher than OP East (the observation post). And if they push [the ANA] off of East, then they are shooting right down on the [combat outpost]."

The enemy lobbed close to 50 mortar rounds into Spera, 13 striking the outpost, Fleischmann said. One ANA soldier was wounded. Troops on Spera fired as many as 100 rounds from their Mark 19 mortar launcher, he said.

Rickard counted 10 Taliban fighters killed. Forces monitoring the Taliban’s radio communications heard them shouting that their commander was among the dead, he said. Another 10 were missing and 24 wounded, Rickard said.

As the battle wound down, the insurgents retreated into Pakistan. Rickard and his men watched them withdraw into the homes that sit at the foot of Red, just across the border.

The Americans say they regularly watch the flow of men with weapons in and out of those homes, supporting the belief that the buildings belong to a Taliban commander named Aleesh.

On this day, they saw the Taliban pull the wounded right into those homes. "But there were kids playing in the wadi (riverbed) system down there," Rickard said.

It was a classic success of the insurgency. On the battlefield, American and Afghan forces were victorious. But in the U.S. counterinsurgency mission, to win support of the people for the government and its military, the Taliban had their say. Rickard’s patrol was diverted from outreach to battle. And when the enemy retreated, they fell back in behind the civilians. So the Americans let them go.

"It would have been nice to get the 10-12 bad guys [going] in the house plus those already there," Rickard said. "But not at the expense of even one child."

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