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Afghan War On Terror Hard To Measure
Terry Boyd
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

March 8, 2004

FIREBASE PURGATORY, Afghanistan The war on terrorism began in Afghanistan, and it will end here, said Capt. Joel Cunningham.

"Iraq," adds Cunningham, of the 10th Mountain Division, "was just a chapter in the book."

Nearly 2 years since Sept. 11, 2001, the war continues.

As the U.S. military prepares an offensive aimed at driving a stake through the heart of Taliban and al-Qaida forces, those on the ground in Afghanistan continue their daily fights.

At Firebase Purgatory, 100 miles southwest of Kandahar, the war doesn't feel like a sure thing.

The war on terror is a low-key, often covert village-to-village struggle, the soldiers say.

Like working a jigsaw puzzle "blindfolded and drunk," says Cunningham, the officer in charge of Purgatory's maneuver forces, drawn mostly from the 10th Mountain's 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, or Triple Deuce.

Only 2 months old, Purgatory is part of the front line that zigzags through remote Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.

The area around Purgatory is in transition between conventional war and messy peace.

It's difficult sometimes for the thousands of U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan to know who's who.

Insurgents probably include both Taliban and criminals, said Lt. Col. Joe DiChairo, Triple Deuce's battalion commander at Kandahar Air Field.

It's taken his soldiers two months to get a feel for just how that area works, DiChairo said.

"Can we tell Taliban and pro-American forces apart physically? No. But we can start to determine who the Taliban players are, and who the pro-coalitions players are," he said.

DiChairo likens Triple Deuce's job at Purgatory to the Taliban trying to tell the Democrats from the Republicans back in the United States: "It would take a long time to know what people's beliefs are."

Adds Capt. Phil Bergeron: "It's like being in a Mad Max movie here."

"Mad Max and Seinfeld," said Cunningham, referring to the popular TV comedy show.

Everyone is armed and driving around in crazy vehicles, they said.

"Everyone in the country has a weapon and is not afraid to use it," said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Aker, with Triple Deuce Headquarters Company.

Cunningham, with Bergeron as fire control commander, rotated last month to this tiny base, a few hundred yards of concertina wire around two flat acres of tents and one small mud building.

Purgatory's mission is disrupting Taliban and al-Qaida operators trying to infiltrate across the mountains from Pakistan, said Cunningham and Special Forces soldiers.

That doesn't distract soldiers from the thousands of other jobs they take on every day.

Missions include everything from providing security for a new Provisional Reconstruction Team to protecting crews building the $250 million Highway One project that will connect Afghanistan's major cities.

"Are we [here] to alter a way of life? To stop tribal warfare? Or are we stopping the enemy of our country?" Bergeron asked.

It's difficult to know whether they're winning or losing, say Triple Deuce soldiers and officers.

"How do you measure disruption?" Cunningham wondered.

To neutralize the Taliban, Purgatory soldiers have to win over locals who want stability, Aker said.

"We realize people can provide more intel than any of us could ever go out there and find," he said. U.S. soldiers are not exactly trying to befriend locals, "but they need an economy and [civil] structure, and we're going to give it to them."

In return, Afghans have to prove their allegiance.

"Like joining an exclusive club. We don't know them. They don't know us. It boils down to trust," Aker said.

If coalition soldiers leave, the Taliban and al-Qaida will come back, says 1st Lt. David Hawk, Cunningham's executive officer. "This country has historically harbored terrorists. There are a million places to hide and no one to bother you."

In that sense, Purgatory's an emerging template, the first of dozens of similar stabilization efforts around Afghanistan.

"We're a cog," Hawk said, "in a machine that's going to turn for the next 10 years."

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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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