Reporter's Notebook: Endless Supply of Insurgents in Afghanistan

PHOTO Lieutenant Dave Womack, commander, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, talks to men in the rural Paktika Province in southeastern Afghanistan
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At 3 a.m., when a frigid wind blew through a moonlit sky, several dozen bundled up soldiers stood shivering on the flight line.

"Sergeant Roberts," barked Sergeant First Class Jamal Jenkins, a platoon leader taking roll call. "Here Sergeant!" came the reply.

Members of 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment jostled for position in the airlift line hoping to avoid the front of the Chinook near the open window where the gunner sits.

It's the coldest place in the helicopter.

Eventually the twin-rotor choppers came roaring in, kicking up a hurricane of gravel and dust. The troops ran toward them, welcoming the intimidating blast of heat they emit.

A few minutes later the troops scampered down the ramp onto dusty, rocky terrain at 8,700 feet in the middle of nowhere. Actually it's some of the most restive turf in the country.

Rural Paktika Province abuts North Waziristan in Pakistan, where militants fighting in this country maintain their hideouts.

They pass unseen through the mountains to wage an unyielding battle with troops trying to secure this country.

The 101st Airborne Division, in charge of eastern Afghanistan, estimates its troops have captured or killed 3,500 insurgents this year. There are estimated to be twice that waiting to join the fight, a seemingly unending supply.

The battalion had some intelligence that enemy fighters were staying in a remote village made of mud and straw.

This pre-dawn endeavor, known as an air assault mission because the troops get dropped into a location as opposed to driven in through potentially bomb-laden terrain, was meant to capture the bad guys.

"What the enemy likes to do is take these areas and exploit them and use them as safe havens," said Lt. Col. Dave Womack, battalion commander. "We're trying to disrupt that."

It's freezing. Under the cover of darkness the troops surrounded the village, sealing exits and entrances. They peer through night-vision goggles and step with their guns ready, taking a knee whenever they stop.

At sunrise they start knocking on doors, inquiring whether the suspected militants might have taken up residence.

"They're not from this village," Womack said. "They do probably have ties to Pakistan."

At one suspected hideout there were no people but live birds and rabbits. At another house there was evidence of militant activity.

"An RPG," said Cpt. Todd Tompkins, using the acronym for rocket propelled grenade. The troops also found ingredients for a roadside bomb and guns.

"We know they've been here," said Womack. "They're certainly going to know that we've been here."

This battalion has already lost three soldiers from direct fire so the initial moments of the search were tense.

As it becomes clear the suspected militants are nowhere to be found the mood relaxes as wide-eyed children emerge from behind walls.

"You think they left before we got here?" Womack asked one of his men, who replied "Yes, sir. They basically just locked up and called it quits."

He seeks out village elders. Instantly this mission has shifted. What started as a hunt for militants has turned into an opportunity to engage the locals. In this war each and every soldier needs to be versed in both.

"The goal of this mission isn't always to get into a fight with bad guys," said Tompkins. "A measure of success is just getting out here, interacting with the people and making a positive impression."

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