Outnumbered U.S. troops defend Afghan frontier

KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan Sun May 17, 2009 10:21am EDT

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KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Lieutenant Joshua Rodriguez, a U.S. platoon commander guarding the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, reckons he is lucky to be alive.

Two weeks after he set up an outpost with 20 Afghan soldiers and seven Americans overlooking a key Taliban smuggling route, some 80 insurgents attacked them hard at daybreak.

"We were very close, very close," he said, days after the fight, holding his fingers a fraction of an inch apart.

As the Taliban threatened to overrun the base, his sniper put down his long-range rifle and grabbed a shotgun. Then he dropped the shotgun and picked up hand grenades. The enemy had come within throwing distance of the outpost's razor wire.

"They were trying to get in from everywhere. It was a miracle," Rodriguez said.

Yet although they managed to fend off the fighters and prevent the outpost from being overrun that day, they abandoned it a few days later, leaving the cross-border smuggling route through the vast Suna Valley unguarded.

A few days earlier, NATO troops at another outpost called Barialai were less lucky. The Taliban overran the position, killing three Americans, two Latvians and five Afghan soldiers.

U.S. commanders are rushing thousands of reinforcements to the south of Afghanistan to take on the Taliban in what Washington considers a make-or-break year for a war it now views as its main security priority.

Here in the east of the country, the official line from top commanders is that they now have all the troops they need.

But down on the ground, in the high mountain passes on the east bank of the Kunar river which guerrillas have been using to smuggle fighters and weapons in from Pakistan for decades, the soldiers of 6/4 squadron tell a different story.

The fighting is hard and constant, and they do not have enough men to stop the Taliban infiltrating across the border.

DROP IN THE SEA

Before it was overrun, the Barialai post overlooked two valleys, Hlegal and Daring, that are used as smuggling routes.

The U.S. troops say they know the names of insurgent commanders who are living in the two valleys, but do not have enough forces to clear them.

In January, U.S. commanders sent an extra 700 troops to the area south of 6/4 squadron's territory. The new troops are just "a drop of water" in the sea, said one soldier who asked not to be identified while discussing the shortage of manpower.

Officially, 6/4 squadron controls a stretch of border through two provinces, Kunar and Nuristan. But they have not had enough manpower to visit Nuristan for months. Mountain passes there are guarded by the Afghan police.

"They called us two times ... a few months ago when they were attacked by insurgents. We sent a combat assault team and we repelled the attack. Since then they haven't called us. Nobody knows what is happening up there," the soldier added.

In Kunar, helicopters race to the remote outposts throughout the night, bringing the isolated troops food, water and ammunition. Artillery back at their base booms constantly, lighting up the valley with explosions and flares.

Captain Jay Bessey, commander of the squadron's Charlie troop is overseeing the construction of a new fortified combat outpost where a small contingent expects to be under constant attack. Drawing fire was part of the reason for being here.

"When the enemy is focused on attacking us here he is not focused on attacking the road crew who is building the road up. He is not attacking the guys that are working on the schools over in the neighboring villages," he said.

"You know, this is part of the job."

(Writing by Laurent Hamida and Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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