Troops Battle Afghan Heat, Terrain
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SULEIMAN KHEL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Sweeping into the Suleiman Khel valley near the Pakistan border at dawn, about 300 U.S. troops were told to expect heavy resistance from al-Qaida or Taliban fighters. Instead their battle was against rugged terrain, merciless heat and some nasty desert creatures.
The troops had hardly been on the ground before pocket thermometers went off the scale at 122 degrees.
``I have never been so hot and sweaty in my whole life,″ said Pfc. Stephan Diskman, 20, of Portland, Ore.
As noon approached, troops sweating profusely under the load of weapons and equipment began running out of water even through each was carrying about two gallons. Medics handed out salt tablets and prepared saline drip bags in case some collapsed.
Razor-sharp shale and rocks also hampered their progress, providing no cover but resulting in many cuts.
``This is gruesome terrain,″ said 1st Sgt. Ricky Pugalee, a 16-year Army veteran. ``It’s hard to survive and carry weapons and equipment in this kind of heat.″
The troops did find some small weapons caches, searched suspected terrorist training camps and blew up several caves during the operation, which began Monday and ended Tuesday.
``We had credible evidence that al-Qaida was there. We found some evidence and we will process it,″ said Col. Michael S. Linnington, commanding officer of the 3rd brigade, 101st Airborne. ``We know there is still significant al-Qaida. Wherever they are, we will find them.″
Linnington said operation Apache Snow II, staged on what had been scheduled to be the opening day of Afghanistan’s national council _ or loya jirga _ to choose a new government, should send a signal to anyone intent on causing more problems for Afghanistan.
``The message is that the legitimate government will take place. We will do anything to eliminate ... al-Qaida and the Taliban,″ Linnington said.
That involved a record-breaking air assault that flew troops from the 3rd Battalion of the 187th infantry, 192 miles from their base at Kandahar airport to the barren, dusty valley. The previous record of 175 miles also was set by the 101st Airborne, during the Gulf War.
``This mission proves we can move anywhere we want, anytime we want,″ said Lt. Col. Patrick Fetterman, of Cooperstown, N.Y., the mission commander. ``There is no safe place in this country. We fill find you and root you out, no matter where you are.″
The raid was named to commemorate 3rd battalion veterans of Operation Apache Snow on May 10-12, 1969, in Vietnam. Commonly known as Hamburger Hill, that operation left 56 Americans and 597 Vietnamese dead and 420 U.S. troops wounded.
U.S. officials have said they are searching a number of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban sites near the Pakistani border one by one for intelligence or weapons.
Most al-Qaida or Taliban fighters are thought to have taken refuge in neighboring Pakistan or are hiding in small numbers in eastern Afghanistan. Some 1,000 U.S. troops _ mostly special forces _ have been searching in the border region for months but have found few, if any, fighters, only weapons caches.
The raid was one of the largest of its kind so far and was in the planning stages for days. Fetterman told troops to be ready for anything.
``Even if we are under fire, we won’t lift off. We will fight,″ he said before 10 Chinook helicopters took off. Skirting the ground, they flew more than two hours before unloading the troops, who quickly began securing the 10-square-mile area, crisscrossed by canyons and gullies.
Soldiers and Army criminal investigators searched three small villages and a deserted training camp before entering several caves. In one, deep in the hills above a dry gully, they found boxes of ammunition. Engineers blew up the cave.
Some troops secured a small walled farm and set up ponchos for a little shade. At night, ants, spiders and a few scorpions provided added menace.
Most of the soldiers were more frustrated at the lack of al-Qaida than the conditions.
``Since al-Qaida and Taliban came to our country and killed our people, we had to come here and face them,″ said Sgt. Allan Toney, 23, of Oxnard, Calif. ``But they’re running to Pakistan like cowards. We are here and they are hiding, they won’t fight face-to-face like men.″