On patrol with the U.S. Army 

5th Special Forces in Afghanistan

5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) 

By Susan Sevareid, Associated Press, 1/8/2002 01:13

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) Crouching in the back of a dusty black pickup, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier trains his rifle on two Afghans, one armed with a machine gun, found inspecting a Soviet-era T-55 tank abandoned in a dry river bed.

Two other Americans step out of the truck and cautiously approach, rifles ready, as a third Afghan pops into view.

In a country where alliances change faster than the dust clouds settle, who is a friend isn't always apparent, especially around the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

The rifles lower slightly when the men on the tank, and two buddies who join them, greet the American soldiers warmly, assuring them there are no Taliban in the area. One shows a gaping bullet wound in his lower leg.

''They say they scared 'em away. That's how he got this,'' says Mike, who hauls a medical pack from the truck and begins cleaning and wrapping the leg, explaining with a few words of Pashtu and a lot of hand gestures what he is doing and how to care for the wound.

The men of the U.S. Army Special Forces, known as the ''quiet professionals,'' are reluctant to talk about their operations, and allowing journalists access to the teams for the first time was a tortuous decision for their commanders. To protect the men, the Army did not allow them to be fully identified or for photographs to reveal their faces.

Not long ago, the elite soldiers were in the thick of the war against the Taliban regime, advising and training oppositions forces and sometimes fighting alongside them, taking an unprecedented central role in a war fought thus far largely without conventional U.S. ground forces.

Fighting has quieted, and now the Americans spend more time on reconnaissance missions like the one that led the members of team Python 36 to the tank.

They survey old battlegrounds for unexploded munitions and weapons and they keep an eye out for signs of trouble. They search dusty valleys for Taliban or al-Qaida fighters and for discarded documents and other materials that might provide information on Osama bin Laden's terror network, which was blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

They have nonmilitary tasks, too. Trained in languages and culture, the teams spend time talking to residents and shopkeepers about food and water supplies, crime and the availability of schools, police stations and other services. Such assessments are aimed at helping local authorities plan for rebuilding.

''My team understands that what they recommend shapes government policy,'' said Paul, a 29-year-old captain from Tennessee who commands Python 36.

In Kandahar, his team's soldiers watch the city from the rooftop of a building they have called home since Dec. 10. Gunfire occasionally is heard, and they keep an eye out for suspicious vehicles that venture too close. Afghan guards outside move people along.

The sparse quarters are more comfortable than usual for a team whose members have seen action in Kuwait during the Gulf War, Haiti, Bosnia and other hotspots. Other teams, operating from makeshift camps in the rugged mountains and deserts across Afghanistan, are searching for senior Taliban and al-Qaida members.

Teams in the Kandahar area have been in close calls, losing friends when a U.S. bomb went astray north of Kandahar on Dec. 5, killing three special forces soldiers. Even with the defeat of the Taliban, it remains a dangerous country. A special forces soldier was killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan on Friday.

The nature of the work, depending on each other for survival, brings them close.

''We do just about everything together,'' the captain said. ''We are pretty much a family.''

Frank, a 37-year-old staff sergeant from West Virginia, said the men bond regardless of age or rank. ''If it's us against the world, it's us against the world there's a lot of brotherly trust.''

Caches of munitions are being found everywhere in a nation that has known only war for nearly a quarter century.

Soon after reaching the Kandahar area, special forces soldiers found 176 anti-tank and artillery shells on the roof of the Kandahar palace where the new governor, Gul Agha, had been sworn in. The explosives were wired in a booby trap capable of creating a huge blast.

As they slowly cruise Kandahar's dirt streets, their beards scruffy and their heads wrapped in Afghan scarves, the men of Python 36 wave at grocers, old men drinking tea, boys on bicycles and armed men in passing vehicles.

''Stalle maashi! Stalle maashi!'' the Americans call out, waving as they drive past. The Pashtu greeting elicits giggles and waves back from the children, many smiles and only a few cold stares.

''We passed the wave test they're still happy to see us,'' said Ray, who's traded his Special Forces Green Beret for a traditional Woolen Pakul. The master sergeant from North Carolina speaks Pashtu, only occasionally dipping into his pocket dictionary.

Special forces commanders said Kandahar officials who have spoken with tribal elders estimate 80 percent of the city's residents are supportive of the American presence, about 15 percent are ambivalent and 5 percent are hard-core opponents.

''They either really like us or they don't know anything about us and really hate us,'' said an American named Cale.

''That's why we get out here to press the flesh a bit,'' Ray added. ''Get to know them, be aware of their customs sometimes that makes the difference.''

Whether their efforts are successful won't be known for a long time, said ''Bulldog,'' a 40-year-old major from New Hampshire.

Asked how he would know, he answered, ''I guess in 10 years from now if we can turn around and look and say: `We helped build this country and it worked.'''

 

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