A Beautiful View, But Still A Battle Zone

Sep 5, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 10:27 am

Observation Post Mustang sits high in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. At an altitude of 5,600 feet, the soldiers stationed there from the Army's 2-27th Infantry Regiment have a stunning view of the Kunar River Valley far below.

But it's not all just beautiful vistas and clean mountain air. On Sunday, the forward operating base that sits in the valley below took enemy fire. NPR's David Gilkey, who is embedded with the 2-27th Infantry, photographed American soldiers as they engaged in a firefight with insurgents across the valley.

Observation Post Mustang provides a position to keep watch on the other U.S. bases in the valley below, as well as the highway that runs along the Kunar River. The area is used by insurgent fighters as a infiltration and smuggling route from Pakistan, which is just over the mountains to the west. "This is probably the most important region in Afghanistan," says Gilkey, "because it's the frontline to stop insurgents coming over border from Pakistan."

The U.S. soldiers are not up there alone. They are joined by local Afghan security forces — men from local villages — who have proven to be invaluable.

"They know the terrain, they know where people come and go from, where people should be and not be," explains Gilkey. "They sit up here with the guys from 2-27th on the top of this little tiny hilltop and provide the Afghan presence here."

That hilltop is only accessible by helicopter — there are sheer drops in every direction. So, as Gilkey points out, they really do have an eye on this important, and dangerous, part of the world.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan this month and has traveled to a city that's been a key to all of the conflicts there over the past decade since 9/11. In fact, over the past 30 years. After the 9/11 attacks, Jalalabad, Afghanistan was the last place Osama bin Laden was seen as he headed for Tora Bora and then on to Pakistan.

We reached Renee in Jalalabad, where she'd just spoken with NPR photographer David Gilkey, who's also in that area.

Hi, Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Hi. Good morning, Steve.

You know, if you don't mind, I just want to give listeners a quick sense of the geography here. Jalalabad is in the east of Afghanistan. It's about a 45-minute drive from the border. And it's set along the legendary Grand Trunk Road, as that road passes from Pakistan into Afghanistan. And that's what makes where NPR photographer David Gilkey is now a frontline in this war.

He's embedded with American troops in a remote area east and further north of where I am here in Jalalabad.

And, David, describe to us where you are right now.

DAVID GILKEY: I'm about 5,600 feet up on top of a mountain top overlooking the Kunar River Valley. It's utterly spectacular.

MONTAGNE: It may be quite beautiful where you are, but I'm also hearing the sounds of war. I believe we're hearing helicopters and aircraft all around you.

GILKEY: Yeah. I'm here with the 227th Infantry from Hawaii. And there was fighting up and down the area where I'm at all day long, including multiple air drops of 2,000-pound bombs on insurgent positions just a kilometer and two kilometers away from where I'm at.

MONTAGNE: And are you taking fire up where you are?

GILKEY: There was a mortar attack on the forward operating base that sits below us. And that launched into a lot of gunfire and a lot of exchanging of mortars - outgoing mortars from our position to try and get that stopped before it hit the big base below us.

MONTAGNE: How long have international forces been there on this mountaintop fighting for this valley? And what is their mission?

GILKEY: Well, the Kunar River Valley leads north of Jalalabad - north and east of Jalalabad. And so it contains a series of valleys that shoot both east and west, the most famous of which is the Korangal Valley. This is probably the most important region in Afghanistan, because it's the frontline to stopping insurgents coming over the border from Pakistan.

MONTAGNE: Are there Afghan forces there with the American troops?

GILKEY: Yeah, there are. And they, you know, one of the big things that's been talked about sort of over the last couple of years is building that Afghan capacity. And not just with the Afghan national army, but with local security forces.

And so they have with them Afghan security guards which are from some of the villages around here. And that is invaluable. They know the terrain. They know where people come and go from, where people should be and not be. So they sit up here with the guys from the 227th on the top of this little tiny hilltop, and they provide sort of the Afghan presence here.

You know, this hill we're on is only accessible by helicopter. I mean, it's sheer drops off any given direction. So, you know, they really do have an eye on the world up here.

MONTAGNE: David Gilkey, NPR photographer. Listeners can see photographs of what you're seeing at our website, And, David, take care.

GILKEY: You, too.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Renee Montagne is reporting from Afghanistan as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches. And later this week, we will hear more from Renee in Jalalabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.