Afghanistan: Fighting In A "Hornet's Nest"

U.S. General Tells 60 Minutes More Soldiers And Assets Needed To Defeat Enemy

CBS All Access
This video is available on Paramount+

This story was first published on Oct. 19, 2008. It was updated on Sept. 3, 2009.

Last month was the deadliest month for American troops since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001.

Responding to calls for more troops by U.S. commanders, President Obama has pledged to nearly double the number to 68,000 troops by this fall. What will they be facing?

We're going to tell you about a small group of American soldiers on the frontlines of the war. 60 Minutes lived with them for a month last September on a small forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistani border. It's where the real fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda is happening - in canyon valleys and jagged mountain hideouts which are crawling with enemy fighters.

There is a reason the base 60 Minutes and correspondent Lara Logan traveled to is called "Wilderness." It's in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but desolate mountains stretching endlessly into the distance, until you drop onto a tiny patch of ground not much bigger than a football field in the heart of enemy territory.

"I thought it was gonna be a little bit quieter here. But we landed in a hornet's nest when we got here," explains Staff Sgt. Jake Schlereth.

When Schlereth, 27, and 33-year-old Sgt. First Class Anthony Barnes were sent to Afghanistan, they thought the fight was mostly over.

When he arrived in Afghanistan, Sgt. Schlereth didn't think he'd be landing in a hornet's nest. "I guess I really didn't know what to expect when I got here. I'd never been here before, I'd only been to Iraq. And you didn't hear too much about Afghanistan on the news. It was all about Iraq."

"Iraq, yeah. … Roles are reversed," Sgt. Barnes comments.

"Yeah. Reversed. And now it's all about here," Schlereth agrees.

It's all about "here" because the fight in Afghanistan is worse than ever. The tiny base has been hit by rockets and mortars at least 30 times since these soldiers arrived in March.

And that's only part of it: Barnes, Schlereth and their fellow soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division have survived 20 ambushes on their patrols.

American casualties are highest in the East, where they are fighting an Afghan warlord, Jalauddin Haqqani and his son, who are closely allied to al Qaeda and share al Qaeda's goal of driving America out of Afghanistan.

They've also publicly stated that targeting the base is one of their top priorities.

The base commander, 29-year-old Captain Thomas Kilbride, has seen more combat than any of his soldiers, constantly deployed since 9/11.

Asked if now, on his third tour in Afghanistan, things have changed in the country, Capt. Kilbride tells Logan, "In regards to enemy activity, I think it's increased. We need to deal with them deliberately, and, you know, immediately."

Their mission for 12 months is to protect a road, which is the only direct link between the East and the capital Kabul. "The road is a livelihood for everybody, it's a line that connects the rest of Afghanistan. It's a bloodline, an opportunity for all of Afghanistan to kind of develop," Kilbride explains.

Part of that development is a planned $121 million project to rebuild the road, paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

The enemy doesn't want to see that happen, so Kilbride is unrelenting about going after them. And doing that there means getting up every day to face these mountains, every inch of them enemy territory.

Asked how bad this area is, Kilbride says, "It's one of our worst areas. They have the advantage, they know this terrain more than we do."

It often takes eight hours or more of climbing to 10,000 feet, even if they don't find the enemy, just to let them know they're not out of reach.

"The first time I did it, I thought I was gonna die because I'm from the East Coast. I'm from the South. The highest mountain we got's 5,000 feet," Barnes recalls.

"The terrain here will kick your ass. I mean, it's not a joke. You can feel it in your lungs. Feel it, you get that feeling in your chest when you're like 'Wooh!'" Kilbride explains.

He says it's a daily experience.

On one mission, after a steep - at times vertical - climb to the top of the mountain to search for a weapons cache, they found nothing.

The terrain and the enemy are relentless.

Asked if he ever let his guard down, Schlereth says, "Can't. Security's a must around here. Don't take anything for granted."

"If they catch you slippin', they will definitely make your day hard," Barnes adds.