Video: Soldiers on the hunt for al-Qaida

By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/12/2004 7:39:56 PM ET 2004-02-13T00:39:56

Patrols from the 10th Mountain Division are now a fixed part of this bleak Afghan countryside.  For many of these men, it’s their second tour in Afghanistan since 9/11.

Sgt. Daniel Romero, of Carlsbad, N.M., volunteered to come back here after serving in Iraq. “I felt it was part of my duty to go ahead and come here,” Romero said. “I know they were hurting for platoon sergeants and everything like that.”

Al-Qaida is not the only enemy out here. Snow, freezing nights, ice and mud are everywhere.  But the search for al-Qaida never stops.

When some local villagers offered a tip about men who were involved in a recent rocket attack, an always dangerous nighttime operation was organized using night vision technology and lots of backup firepower. With the help of local translators, the suspects were located and arrested. They’re still being held and questioned.

When it was daylight again, a street patrol began in the frontier town of Orgun. This area was once hot with al-Qaida. It’s mostly peaceful now. The 10th Mountain Division wants to ensure that al-Qaida does not come back.

And in the meantime, a big part of their mission is winning the hearts and minds of these local residents and merchants. The soldiers want to become a friendly face in town. They’re spending more time with the local population, and they think its working. They’re providing a variety of services including medical care.

Torn by conflictLocal men, like Sulman Mohammad, hanging out at an Orgun teahouse, say they’re happy to see the Taliban gone and the Americans here.  Sulman wants to see more roads and schools.

But it was hard to know what one driver was thinking as Romero and his men checked his pickup.  “We got a job to do — to make it a safe and secure environment.  The only way we can do that is pretty much to do what we do,” Romero said.

Do the locals understand the soldiers’ role?  “They understand for the most part. I think sometimes they get a little annoyed with it from time to time,” Romero said.

A local man was anxious, but cooperative, as he was checked for his ID and his AK-47 was temporarily taken away. Turned out he was OK.

Back at their firebase, the 10th Mountain soldiers work on their live fire skills, stay in shape, play computer games and chow down.

Life is not easy out here, but does it ever get monotonous?  Romero said: “You see different things each time you go out there. You build upon it each time. ... I’ve got a group of men that I have to ensure their safety; that they are doing the right things at all times.”

Pfc. Arthur Gardea of Phoenix has been here twice and considers it a privilege, “I’m always gonna remember this place and all the stuff that I’ve done and all the people I’ve met, and hopefully I’ve the made the world a little bit safer.”

Winter weather will soon give way to spring, and there are reports of a major offensive.   Lt. Gen. David Barno, the Army’s top man in Afghanistan, chooses his words carefully: “We’ve got some very focused operations that we’re undertaking here in the first six or eight months of this year that will really be looking hard for the senior leadership of these terrorist organizations and also working with the government to help unravel the Taliban.”

The men of the 10th Mountain Division have had a long winter to get ready; whatever the spring brings firebase Orgun — part of the long front lines in the war on terror.

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