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Crossing the line

By Henry Schuster
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Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's investigative unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them. Henry Schuster is on leave; the column will return in October.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE BERMEL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The men of Bravo Company were assembled at the gun pit of their forward operating base. Dusk was approaching in Afghanistan. So, too, was the minute of silence to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

As the bagpiper began to play and our camera was rolling, there was a far off whoosh. "Rocket," yelled a couple of the men and we all rushed for cover.

The plan had been to hold the silence at the time the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center halfway around the world five years ago. But, as they say in the military, the enemy has a vote.

And this afternoon, the enemy was voting with rockets. None hit the base and Bravo Company quickly returned fire, using its big 105 mm howitzers.

By nightfall, the rockets had stopped and the ceremony took place -- perhaps the most appropriate reminder of the connection between the plot hatched here in Afghanistan and carried out in New York and Washington.

As the moon rose, the sounds of shelling and distant explosions filled the air. A border post had been overrun a few miles away, we were told, and the soldiers at the next base over were responding.

Though it was September 11th, this was just a typical day and night near the border with Pakistan, just a few miles away.

Truce and consequences

Life can look very different depending on which side of the line you are on -- in this case, the sometimes hypothetical border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A few days earlier, Pakistan Maj. Gen. Azhar ali Shah could not have been more gracious as he flew us over North Waziristan.

The government of Pakistan had just signed a deal that basically declared a truce with the Taliban living in this tribal region.

Gen. Azhar said the agreement would free up resources inside North Waziristan and allow him to put more of his 20,000 troops along the border with Afghanistan.

On a map, that border looks like someone's idea of a joke, full of bends and twists.

Gen. Azhar seems to have a good grasp of the geographical contortions, directing our attention during an aerial tour to border posts perched on mountaintops, down in dried river beds and amid various passages.

At one point we landed in a valley. A group of villagers clustered nearby as we made our way into a small mud fort.

Gen. Azhar pointed over a nearby ridge. Two kilometers that way, he told us, was Camp Tillman, a forward operating base run by the 10th Mountain Division on the Afghan side of the border. (Bravo Company is one of the six companies belonging to the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.)

I'd been at Camp Tillman a few weeks earlier where soldiers told me of firefights with insurgents who they said would then flee across the border to Pakistan.

But Gen. Azhar dismissed the notion that people were crossing illegally into his territory. He said his men had a strong grip on the border and emphasized Pakistan's presence with its 97 border posts, rhetorically asking where the border posts were on the other side.

Still, it was hard to reconcile the two different accounts.

Later, we flew to another border post, this one at 8,700 feet. From there, we saw an explosion and a large cloud of smoke rising from the Afghan side of the border.

"It is very busy over there," said the post commander, "especially in the afternoons." He explained that U.S. and Afghan troops were busy with Operation Mountain Fury, an anti-Taliban offensive.

A topographical map at the post showed we were just five miles (eight kilometers) from Bermel, where we would be the next day. "If it gets too busy for you over there, you are welcome to come stay with us," said the commander with a small laugh.

The enemy's favorite target

The rockets heading our way were coming from the vicinity of the Pakistani border. Not from across the border -- they don't have that sort of range -- but clearly from the area.

Bermel is a small base, home to about 150 soldiers. It is a series of plywood huts built around a couple of old mud brick structures.

Set on flat ground, about 7,000 feet up, there are rocks and shrubs extending for at least a couple of kilometers in each direction. Behind the base is another one belonging to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and just beyond that is the village of Bermel.

No rockets have penetrated the outer cordon of the base but the men of Bravo Company say their base has the distinction of taking more enemy fire than any other in this area.

And soldiers and commanders all say there has been a noticeable increase in contact with the enemy recently even as Pakistan says its deal with the Taliban will help to rein in cross-border activity.

The U.S. troops understand the need for Pakistan to deal with its own Taliban problem first, say the officers here, but it the problem is increasingly moving into Afghanistan as men and weapons cross the border.

We see a sign of the Taliban activity when we drive to a local school. Built with U.S. aid, it was to have been a centerpiece of the counter-insurgency campaign, a way to win hearts and minds.

Only two days after it was completed, it was blown up, presumably by the Taliban.

As we were finishing our last broadcast from FOB Bermel, there was a dull thud in the distance, behind us this time and away from the border. A few minutes later, we learn it was an IED (improvised explosive device) aimed at a group of Afghan soldiers.

Neither they nor the American military trainer with them was injured, but it was a telling bookend to our visit with the Taliban making themselves heard again.

U.S. soldiers at FOB Bermel fire their howitzer after a rocket attack disrupted a planned 9/11 ceremony.


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