TIME: On the Mop-Up Patrol


The attack comes a little before 5 a.m. Sporadic machine-gun fire has been heard throughout the night, and in the early hours of the morning, a hilltop observation post tells the team of U.S. special forces that there is suspicious movement south of the perimeter. Then comes small-arms fire, followed by the whoomp of an incoming rocket-propelled grenade. Tracers show a stream of outgoing rounds in reply. Afghan soldiers fighting with the Americans send their own RPGs into the night. The local Afghan commander, a short, stern man called Ismael, says they were plundered from a store of Taliban weapons he has discovered. His men try to fire illumination rounds, but two of three pop straight up. "We're helping the enemy more than we're helping ourselves," a U.S. soldier says with a laugh. The special forces are hamstrung by a lack of information; radio batteries in the forward positions have drained. "Walk in a direct line to the hill and head up to the observation post and get me information on what's out there," the American commander orders an Afghan patrol. "And take these batteries."

A band of perhaps 10 al-Qaeda fighters is testing the position's defenses. After a huddle, the U.S. soldiers send a small Afghan patrol out to meet the intruders. Minutes later four special forces follow the locals to give guidance and backup. Another commando organizes 10 Afghan soldiers into a quick reaction force. The Afghans fight al-Qaeda's probing force about half a mile from the camp, but in the end the enemy melts away. "They can hide and come back anytime they want," says a special-forces soldier who gives his name only as "Oklahoma Chris."

As recently as March 12, Pentagon officials said the battle of Shah-i-Kot, the bloodiest skirmish in the five-month war, was winding down. But late last week, as TIME spent a day and a night with a team of U.S. special forces and their Afghan allies, it was very much alive. True, the U.S. force numbers are way down from the 1,000 or more who fought in the battle's first stage, and the bombing, though occasionally heavy, does not match the scale seen two weeks ago. But let there be no doubt: the enemy is still there, and he is resourceful. "Now it's hard-core guerrilla warfare," says a special-forces soldier. Shah-i-Kot seems made for this kind of fighting. After two weeks of battle, the mountainsides are scarred black; vehicles, barely recognizable, litter the trails. But on the rises and in the lees of this mountain redoubt, there is still movement. Columns of Afghan troops roll forward and then halt, fanning out soldiers as figures scarper away into the cover of the rocks ahead.

Those fighters sometimes seem to be the only things that move. In Shah-i-Kot you will rarely find a goat or a donkey or even a dog. Clusters of abandoned or destroyed mud-brick houses stand silent. Just a few weeks ago, these high-walled settlements were home to al-Qaeda fighters and their families. Now they look like a kind of Dresden transferred to a tiny, medieval world. In the village of Sarkhankhel, charred headstones are all that remain of many houses; crumbled walls carpet the ground. It's as though a finger of retribution reached from the sky and pointed to every house, one by one by one. But the bombs didn't take all who lived here. "We've searched many structures," says Oklahoma Chris, "and there is evidence of unhurried packing. Nothing was left behind."

In this hostile terrain, American and allied forces are still taking fire. Together with the Afghans whom they have trained, they crawl up steep ridges to bunkers whose ragged inhabitants refuse to give in, or go after foes slithering away toward the rocks. Small teams of about a dozen commandos are establishing outposts deep in enemy territory, working with Afghan units near 120 strong. In daylight, movement is relatively easy, but the night is more dangerous. Perimeters are set around open camps and, save for the unseen cover from the air, it's a long, lonely wait for whatever may come.

Late in the afternoon on March 14, 20 Afghan troops are led by an American soldier in an attack on a small cave atop a ridge less than 800 yds. from their camp. Through telescopic sights al-Qaeda fighters can be seen scurrying along the rise. As a bomber approaches, the human silhouettes vanish. Explosions rip the earth, and one plane is replaced by another in an aerial tag team; at dusk the smoky white skywriting burns to an incandescent orange. But as so often happens in this war, no kills are recorded or prisoners taken. With light fading, the special forces set Afghan sentries. "We want RPGs there, there and there," says an American officer. In twos and threes the local soldiers traipse out to their positions, carting machine guns and small duffel bags. Those not on duty mingle around canvas tents; one group is ordered to put "that goddam fire out." The U.S. soldiers don night-vision goggles, and the Afghans pin squares of tape to their beanies to identify themselves as friendlies--and then wait nervously for those who are nothing of the kind.

The U.S. forces have learned to respect their adversaries. "Small-sized teams can do a lot of damage," says special-forces soldier "Alabama Chris," wearing a Crimson Tide cap with his camouflage pants. The enemy can slip away easily: surrounding Shah-i-Kot are countless villages that offer succor to al-Qaeda fighters. "Part of the focus is to seal off their supply routes, or what we call rat lines," says Alabama Chris. That isn't easy. Covert supply routes between villages run along dried-up creeks. Cave entrances to the bunkers can be almost impossible to detect. Subterranean complexes have been discovered between buildings in the middle of villages. The arsenal on hand is formidable. "If it's man portable or can be carried over the mountains on donkey, then most likely they've got it," says Oklahoma Chris. South of the valley, Afghan forces trained by the Americans have set up roadblocks to prevent fighters' escaping over the mountains to Pakistan. Balaclava-clad soldiers search every vehicle and passenger while the barrels of heavy machine guns and RPGS poke through windows. "We intend to make sure none of them escape," local warlord Pacha Khan Zadran tells TIME.

That's a fine sentiment. But it begs a question: How many al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters survived the battle of Shah-i-Kot to fight another day? The Pentagon has boasted of hundreds dead, but they aren't evident in the valley. In Sarkhankhel, only three bodies are visible. Farther upstream, another lies in pieces in a garden. The special forces are cagey about numbers. "Even if we did have them," says a soldier, "we wouldn't be authorized to disclose them." But the Americans insist that the death toll is high. "I've seen them," says Alabama Chris, of al-Qaeda corpses. "I can definitely corroborate that what we've done in the valley has been effective." At the company HQ, another American commando reflects for a while about how many dead al-Qaeda fighters he has seen. "All I can say," he muses, "is that business has been good." That may be; but this business isn't over.