- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

SIRKANKEL, Afghanistan Capt. Kevin Butler couldn't believe his eyes.

Just before the U.S. missiles would hit, al Qaeda fighters would duck into caves, launching mortars from their positions at Capt. Butler's troops below.

When the F-15 Flight Eagles were gone, the enemy fighters would emerge only to throw stones, wave and shout taunts at the Americans in a show of defiance.

"I've never been so frustrated and angry," said Capt. Butler, 30, from Pattenburg, N.J.

Frustration was coming easily to the U.S. troops of the 101st Airborne Division they were facing a well-armed and well-entrenched foe; they had had little sleep; and they were shivering in subfreezing temperatures that left many of their uniforms coated with frost.

On the second day of the biggest joint offensive yet in the Afghan war, the Americans were preparing to flush out enemy fighters on ridges overlooking their positions.

The first sounds of incoming artillery and heavy machine-gun fire cut through the air. The mortar bursts came slowly at first, then intensified as al Qaeda and a few Taliban holdouts zeroed in on some 200 soldiers hidden in a deep stone riverbed that had dried up long ago.

The U.S. soldiers called headquarters to request air strikes on the enemy in the caves. But the fighters were resilient.

"We were moving our command post to high ground," said Cpl. Jeremy Gaul, 25, from Marietta, Ohio. "When I looked out on the horizon, I saw a flash of light and I saw a projectile coming and fall to the earth. It must have exploded no more than 30 yards away."

Capt. Butler requested another air strike, keeping watch through a scope. The enemy fighters again disappeared into caves dug into the snowcapped mountains that stand about 9,000 feet high. When the explosions ended, the holdouts emerged with wide grins, flailing their arms over their heads.

That's when Capt. Butler decided he'd had enough. He sprinted forward, running up the peak a task made more difficult by the thin mountain air and exposing himself to hostile fire so he could pinpoint his enemy.

Getting a read on their location, he raced back 45 yards to relay the coordinates to his radio man behind him. He needed six trips before he could make sure he had gotten all the data he needed.

Now he was ready to put his own plan into action: His forces would launch 60 mm mortars just as the jets roared toward the caves a dangerous proposition because it exposed the planes to the risk of friendly fire.

The jets roared ahead, and just as before, the enemy ducked into the caves, emerging for a third time to taunt the Americans.

But as they came out, the mortars detonated over their heads, spraying them with shrapnel. Four of the fighters died, said U.S. special operations soldiers who scaled the mountains and counted the bodies.

"It was like a game of mortar Ping-Pong," Capt. Butler said. "They might think twice before they try that move again."

Al Qaeda fighters may get some more chances; the Gardez area offensive is expected to continue for a few more days at least. U.S. forces are pursuing al Qaeda and Taliban forces together with Afghan commanders who have sent in thousands of new troops for a final push.

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