KALPANI BASE, Pakistan (AP) — The wind was howling and the snow outside their bullet-pocked bunker lay knee-deep as the men of the 20th Lancer armored regiment bedded down for the night, nearly 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) up a mountain on one of the world's most inhospitable borders.
They cheered themselves up by singing songs. Their commander gazed at photos of his 4-year-old daughter on his computer. But as the men chatted, it became clear that they were feeling a bit underappreciated.
Why did the West accuse Pakistan of not pulling its weight in the war on terror, they asked. Hadn't large numbers of their comrades died at the hands of Islamist militants? Why else were they in this hellish place if not to keep them at bay? "They say we aren't doing enough," said their commander, Capt. Imran Tanvir. "What more can we do?"
Pakistan has lost more than 3,000 soldiers in battles with al-Qaida and Taliban militants since it deployed soldiers to its western border, more than all the foreign deaths in Afghanistan since 2001. Although it sees India to its east as its biggest military challenge, it regards its Afghan flank to the west as critical enough to warrant stationing 130,000 soldiers there.
The base called Kalpani is on the front line in the 10-year war against militant Islamists, a war that allies Pakistan with the U.S. and NATO in an uneasy, distrustful partnership. Pakistan feels scapegoated for the coalition's failures in Afghanistan.
U.S and NATO officials accuse the Pakistan army of being selective in whom it fights, only taking on those who have declared war on the Pakistani state such as the Pakistani Taliban and its allies. The Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network are largely not regarded as a domestic threat and U.S. officials say have been given safe haven in Pakistan even though they are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Afghan and international troops in Afghanistan.
Last month the army took an unprecedented step, allowing an Associated Press writer and photographer to follow Pakistani troops on their front-line rounds for a glimpse inside its fight against militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.
The ghosts of British Empire linger over this wild stretch of northern Pakistan. The unit at Kalpani base comprises Lancers, a term dating back to the British dominion over south Asia which ended with partition into India and Pakistan in 1947. The Lancers' local headquarters are in a 19th century colonial mansion of marble pillars, ornately carved balconies and decaying gardens.
High above the mansion, reachable by a road that ends in snow drifts and then by walking for three hours, is Kalpani, its 46 men housed in bunkers facing Kunar Province in Afghanistan. The cement huts seem to perch precariously on the mountainside. The base was attacked two years ago by militants with rocket launchers and rifles. Four soldiers died.
At one point this area with its 37-kilometer (23-mile) stretch of the Afghan border was under a Pakistani Taliban reign of terror, reinforced by Afghan insurgents from Afghanistan's Kunar province. The militants would make police kneel on the road and behead them one by one, videotaping the murders. Eventually the army ran the militants out, suffering dozens of deaths. But that was not the end of it. Last summer the militants were back, killing 21 border policemen in two locales.
The army, caught by surprise, hurriedly set up eight more bases.
"We went forward, we went up and now we are manning the international border in strength," says Col. Kamran Aslam, a regional army commander. "The war is still on. This time we are going to be hunting them. The only issue is, they go across the border but we can't go after them because it's another country."
It is indicative of the complexities of this war that in Kamran's patch, the Pakistanis accuse Afghan intelligence of abetting Pakistani militants, while to the south it is Pakistan that is accused by NATO and the U.S. of doing the same for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On Kalpani base, however, the imperatives are duty, esprit de corps, and surviving a blizzard of screaming winds that seems to obliterate the mountains in cloud and snow.
The men sleep four to six to a room in sleeping bags laid out over woolen blankets, the only protection against the frigid floor. The camp has two generators, but each runs just one hour a day to conserve fuel. (An exception was made for a Pakistan-England cricket match.)
One night, to the rhythm of a soldier drumming on a cooking pan, the men sang love songs of Attaullah Niazi Khan, a famous Punjabi singer. They clapped when the music picked up, and silently swayed when it softened.
On a smoky kerosene lamp and heater sat a pail of water to provide hot water and stem the choking kerosene fumes.
The talk shifted to one of the most troubling recent incidents to upset the alliance: a U.S. airstrike on two mountain outposts in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The men said they could not understand how the U.S. military, with all its technology, could make such a mistake, and it therefore must have been deliberate. "Every post has a Pakistani flag. They had to see it," said Tanvir, the base commander.
Mushtaq Khan, a major with the military's communications wing, said, "We also don't understand: If they made a mistake why didn't they say sorry? This is the question we ask ourselves in our heart."
The U.S. has said it was partially to blame, first for not having notified Pakistan of an operation in the area, and then for giving it the wrong coordinates for where it was taking place. It also insisted that the Pakistanis fired first.
While they criticized the United States' conduct, none of the soldiers expressed sympathy for militancy.
Some Pakistani politicians may call it "America's War," but Tanvir disagreed.
"This is my country. I am a Pakistani. I don't see that anyone who destroys our schools, our masjids (mosques), kills people, is good for my country," he said. "... If they were working for a better Pakistan, we wouldn't be sitting in this post. The people would be supporting them against us."
Shafiullah, who is clean-shaven, said that if the Islamists took over he would have to grow a beard.
"They are the enemy. They are not working for Pakistan. They are telling us that we have to do everything their way," he said.
Early one morning a dozen men in heavy shawls trudged up the mountain to Kalpani. They had come from a nearby village, summoned by Tanvir to discuss complaints that some of the schools were not being properly protected. They belonged to one of the defense councils which have been established throughout territories cleared of Taliban fighters. They are charged with looking out for strangers, and periodically patrolling likely Taliban targets such as schools and public utilities.
Sitting in a semicircle on plastic chairs, the men peppered Tanvir with demands — additional schoolrooms, a new road, a bathroom for the mosque. Tanvir listened quietly, jotting in a notebook.
Then he spoke, in Urdu with a translator on hand for those who only spoke Pashtu, Pakistan's other major language. He reminded the men that just a few days earlier a suicide bomber had killed a member of a defense council in another nearby village. "Watch when you go to the mosque, to a funeral, to the bazaar — anywhere where people gather," he said.
Tanvir said that for the military to leave, local communities would have to take responsibility for their villages with the help of a trained police force. He said part of his job is to help train the police.
Near Kalpani, a half-dozen police are being mentored by the soldiers, taken out on patrol, taught how to interact with the community. "When we first came, some of the police didn't even know how to carry their weapon properly," Tanvir said. "They have to know how to identify a suspicious person, what to look for, how to search them. We can't just leave and let everyone (Taliban) come back. We have to have a well-trained police force."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan. She can be reached at www.twitter.com/kathygannon