The US army intercepts a chilling threat -- an intelligence report says Islamist insurgents plan to ambush their convoy in Afghanistan, and have enough ammunition to kill them all
A patrol of American soldiers are stranded up a boulder-strewn mountain road, a flat tyre having brought their heavily armoured convoy to a temporary halt.
Gunners grip their weapons and scan rugged peaks towering on either side of the Tsunel Valley in the Hindu Kush mountain range of Kunar province. An hour later, the vehicles pull into Nishagam village without incident.
Two military helicopter gunships swooping low through the valley may have deterred the Taliban-linked fighters this time, but attacks against coalition troops in this volatile area near the Pakistan border are soaring.
In four isolated districts where Kunar and Nuristan provinces meet, attacks rose 120 percent in February and March from a year earlier as coalition forces pushed into harsh terrain where militants have fought for decades.
"It's like trying to fight from the bottom of the Grand Canyon," said Lieutenant Colonel James Markert, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force based at Camp Bostick in Kunar.
Markert partly blames a mild winter. Snow melting early on the mountains allows fighters to operate, but renewed international focus on the war has also unnerved the insurgents, he believes.
"You've got the announcement of troop increases coming, there is a lot of pressure on the enemy as we continue to expand our presence," he said.
It is nearly eight years since a US-led coalition overthrew the Taliban, but as attention switched to the war in Iraq, the fundamentalist movement re-emerged, launching a violent bid to regain power that has gained pace.
US President Barack Obama has brought the spotlight back to Afghanistan, last month unveiling a new strategy that includes the deployment of 21,000 more troops, most of them headed for battlefields in the south.
The troops who have travelled from Camp Bostick to Nishagam, a 10-kilometre (six-mile) journey that takes hours because of the state of the roads, prepare for their first patrols up the verdant mountains circling the village.
Until about three months ago, there was no ISAF presence in this district of Ghaziabad. Mistrust and hostility line the faces of many villagers watching the military vehicles crawl past. A gaggle of children shoot imaginary weapons.
"A lot of people are not bad. They are not Taliban. They are just helping them because they think they are doing a good job for our culture, for our religion," said Ghaziabad's governor Haji Mursalin.
"They are Muslims. They think if you kill Americans, if you kill the people who are helping the Americans, then it will be like jihad, you will go to heaven if you die."
Charlie Troop 3rd Platoon 1st Infantry Division commander Captain Jay Bessey said Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters -- including Pakistanis, Uzbeks and Chechens -- infiltrate from Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
They traverse frontier mountains, cross the Kunar river and head deep into Afghanistan, taking advantage of swathes of rugged terrain that neither ISAF nor Afghan forces have the resources to police.
"What the enemy is doing is planning, staging and resupplying. He has the safe haven here because of lack of manpower issues," Bessey told AFP.
Security forces have set up checkpoints to monitor two bridges spanning the Kunar river, forcing the insurgents to navigate its choppy rapids by flimsy raft or makeshift rope bridges instead.
"It's been a success amidst some challenges... It has really caused a significant strain on their resupply operations. As a result they have decided to up attacks here to deter us," Bessey said.
But trying to convince the local community to work with ISAF is proving difficult, he added, especially as many police and elders have long-standing tribal or family ties with the fighters.
Mursalin, the governor, said locals have to be won over by going village to village and engaging the elders, a huge challenge in an area where some hamlets are many days' travel by road or only accessible by foot.
Kunar and Nuristan have been geographically and culturally isolated from Afghanistan's central government for centuries, with Nuristan the last province to convert to Islam at the end of the 19th century.
"There are some areas here that just don't want to be bothered by anybody, good or bad," said US Sergeant Gilbert Gonzales.
(Source: "Attacks up as US pushes into Afghan Hindu Kush", www.bangkokpost.com 16 April 2009)