Nearly two years since the Taliban regime was forced from power, American soldiers are still in Afghanistan, fighting al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban – and they are still dying.
There are approximately 10,000 soldiers, compared to 125,000 fighting in Iraq, but their task is just as great. The problem is, they're fighting an enemy that's so elusive: hard to see and very hard to find.
60 Minutes II joined up with a group of infantrymen from the 10th Mountain Division's Alpha Company at their base. Logan reports on the life and death situations these soldiers face every day.
60 Minutes II traveled to southeastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, to meet up with the soldiers of Alpha Company. Their leader, Capt. Ryan Worthan, is a farm boy from Iowa.
Worthan showed us the frontline area where he and his men have been fighting for the past seven months — right on the border with Pakistan.
"Very easy to hide. My guys are very fast. They move very quickly, but if we took all of this off of us, we would move a lot faster – and that's how fast the enemy moves," says Worthan.
His soldiers live from moment to moment, never knowing when they're going to get hit. But that's what happened when their base suddenly came under attack. They take cover in the nearest bunker.
Alpha Company has been rocketed many times before, but the enemy isn't usually this accurate. That's the moment Sgt. First Class Vernon Story realizes the bunker they're standing in is being targeted. So they run to another bunker on the other side of the base, knowing the enemy is watching, following, and still targeting them as they run – even as they reach the second bunker, some 250 yards away.
The men at the artillery guns hit back, firing into the mountainside a couple miles away, where they believe the rockets are being launched. Air support is called in, but the attackers disappear before their position can be pinpointed.
As suddenly as it began, the attack is over. There are few casualties, and incredibly, no deaths.
Staff Sgt. Christopher McGurk just had a close call, and is visibly shaken. As darkness falls, the men from Alpha Company come together to talk about the rocket attack. They are often attacked like this without ever seeing their enemy.
Their nights on the frontline are often no less dramatic. The artillery gunners fire sporadically throughout the night as a warning to the enemy that U.S. forces are constantly on the alert.
The soldiers build small fires on the base to keep warm, but it's also a place to gather and decompress. 60 Minutes II couldn't film with lights for safety reasons, so we sat down with Sgts. Story and McGurk around one of the fires to talk to them about the enemy.
"You can no longer just say Taliban or al Qaeda. You don't know exactly who it is – and for me, I think that's the scary part," says McGurk. "It's difficult. You don't know where they are. You don't know exactly what tactics they're going to use."
Adds Story, "It may take someone to get hurt before you find out where it's coming from. That's what aggravates me."
Sgt. McGurk grew up in a military family in the small town of Newburgh, N.Y. He'd never faced combat before he came here, and yet in two short months, his bravery earned him a Purple Heart and two medals for valor.
"I think there would be a spike in terrorist activity if we weren't in this country," says McGurk. "That's just my opinion, and I think we should be here."
"I wake up every morning and do what I'm asked to do," adds Story, 35. "Winning, losing? That's something I couldn't tell you."
Sgt. Story, from Arkansas, signed up for the military when he was just 18. Story has escaped death twice here in battle, and has received the military's highest honors for heroism under fire.
"The experience we've had, they hit you, they run, they hide," says Story. "There are trees where we're at. You don't always see who's shooting at you."
It's before sunrise a few days after the rocket attack when we head out from the base with Alpha Company -- on a mission to find those responsible. It takes an hour to travel the 15 miles of rugged terrain through hostile territory.
Story is warned over the radio that the enemy is tracking our vehicles through the gorge.
When we reach a village where the soldiers think the men who fired the rockets may be hiding out, Story spots men running off the roof of a compound. The soldiers head straight there, not knowing what lies in wait. By the time they get to the compound, the men have disappeared into the nearby mountains.
The women left behind begin wailing when Story's men search the compound. Inside, they find heavy machine gun ammunition and armor-piercing rounds -- the same type of bullets used against them by the enemy.
The platoon keeps moving though the village, searching houses and people, knowing things can turn nasty at any time.
"We got some information from some of the guys that we got down there that all the young men in the village have left to set up an ambush, so when we leave, they can hit us," says Story. "Whether that's true or not, I don't know."
Story's men uncover more weapons, including homemade grenades and improvised bombs in the village pharmacy. They didn't find any enemy fighters in the village, but the soldiers are relieved to make it out without being ambushed.
This is not the same type of enemy U.S. soldiers faced when they first went to war here after 9/11 and defeated a traditional army.
Logan asked the man in charge of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan about the changes in their strategy.
"I think it is essentially an anti-terrorist war, counter-insurgency. You see, there are many different terms you can use to characterize it," says Lt. Gen. David Barno, 49, one of the youngest three-star generals in the U.S. Army. "They are using classic terrorist tactics, car bombings, attacking innocent civilians."
On the front line, Sgt. Story sees the enemy strategy in action: "If they don't want to fight, they're not going to fight. They're not gonna fight. They're not gonna show themselves, so they're gonna hide or not even be there. They'll be somewhere else and then they'll pick and choose when they want to come over here and do what they want to do."
While 60 Minutes II was with Alpha Company, a new unit arrived on the frontline.
None of these soldiers had experienced enemy combat before. But that was about to change. We followed them the next morning as Sgt. Story took them on their first combat patrol in the area.
Story warned his men to stay off the road, saying it could be mined. But those words would come back to haunt us. The terrain forced the lead vehicles back onto the road, and we followed behind. That's when we hit the mine.
The impact blasted us into the air, knocking out our camera and flipping the Humvee. We scrambled for cover and quickly got our second camera rolling, as Story ordered his men to open fire. He knew the mine could have been detonated and suspected we were being ambushed.
60 Minutes II cameraman, Jeff Newton, took pictures moments before our vehicle hit the landmine. Staff Sgt. Roy Mitchell, in the front seat, had his leg blown off. Behind him, Sgt. Story, who is next to Sgt. First Class Michael Eichner, also suffered serious injuries.
Sgt. Eichner, Story's best friend, sustained serious back injuries. Sgt Mitchell lost his leg and part of his jaw. Through the chaos, it became clear to Story that there was no incoming fire -– so he silenced the soldiers' guns.
The men were relieved when the Medivac arrived quickly. As we pulled back to base, another platoon came in to search the area. But many of the soldiers thought the enemy would be long gone across the border into Pakistan, where they cannot follow.
Why not? "I don't want to characterize in any detail of our operational limitations are here," says Barno.
The soldiers may be allowed to shoot across the border, but the real issue is the enemy escaping into Pakistan, where American troops aren't allowed to pursue them.
Their mission in Afghanistan goes beyond fighting. It's also about re-building the country.
Sgts. Paul Gonzalez and Ben Sledge are part of Army Civil Affairs -- a specialized military unit that works alongside Alpha Company. Their job is to win the trust of the locals. And they hope children like these will remember when American soldiers came to their village and ran races, or gave out blankets, or sat down to tea.
They know they've made progress when they can go to places that were too dangerous. But it's not always so easy. In this village, it quickly becomes obvious that Sledge and Gonzalez aren't welcome. There's no tea on offer here, no smiling faces.
The soldiers say these are signs that tell them the enemy is near, maybe even sitting there with them.
"I wonder sometimes if it's me or one of my friends that's going to be on the next bird home in a coffin," says Sledge.
The U.S. insists it'll stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to stabilize the country, but no one could tell us how long that would be.
"A victory here will not be measured as a military victory, we know," says Barno. "I tell people there will be no surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri at the end of this conflict. This will be a long, slow, continuous process of improvement here of growing security."
What we learned from Sgt. Story and the men from Alpha Company are they believe that what they're doing in Afghanistan will help prevent another Sept. 11. But they know that comes at a price.
"You can die here, just as fast here as in Iraq," says Story. "So if we're forgetting about Afghanistan, or if we're not forgetting about Afghanistan, I want the guys that are coming here, that are going to relieve me, to know that any day, any second, any night, they can die just as fast as the guy in Iraq can."