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Inside terror’s forgotten war in Afghanistan

NBC's Jim Maceda embeds with the Army's 10th Mountain Division during a recent mission called "Operation Mountain Lion" in Afghanistan.

Late on the night of April 11, big Chinook helicopters dropped thousands of soldiers, Marines and our two-man NBC News team onto the treacherous 7,000-foot peaks overlooking the Korungal Valley in Eastern Afghanistan — haven for up to 1,000 Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents.

"Operation Mountain Lion" was under way. We linked up with headquarters company and the commander of the offensive, Col. John Nicholson, who leads from the front.

"We are going into an area where the enemy has been able to achieve some amount of sanctuary for some time," said Nicholson, "and we're going to kill or capture every single one of them." 

The Taliban has launched a spate of attacks lately, even targeting schools. We came across a school that had been hit by a Taliban rocket, killing seven children earlier this week.

So far, the operation has moved as planned, though not without incident. The insurgents are out there. They are waiting — and probing.

We found that out on our first night, when gunmen sprayed our campsite with machine gunfire, just as we prepared to sleep, sending me digging for cover. Two insurgents were wounded, fleeing into the mountains. It was my closest call in 30 years of reporting.

At dawn, we began the grueling 4,000-foot descent. I carried a 50-pound pack. My cameraman, Kyle Eppler, had that plus a 50-pound car battery, for power. We followed a goat trail, used by insurgents and drug smugglers. Somehow, after 11-and-a-half hours, we arrived at the bottom, exhausted. So were four 10th Mountain soldiers, who needed medical care.

The villages looked empty, except for some women and children. Where were the men?

"I think they're hiding," said Nicholson. "They think this is like other operations where we come in for three or four days. This will be different."

Even as the fighting continued, we walked with Nicholson's company to a village to meet with the elders.

"We come here with respect for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan," Nicholson told them, promising new roads, bridges and clinics — all part of an effort to win hearts and minds — in an often forgotten war that is hard work for the military and the media covering it.