Friday, May 14, 2010
By SEBASTIAN ABBOT (AP)
U.S. soldiers had just made it through a dense patch of vineyards to a cluster of abandoned mud compounds when the radio operator let out a shout: "Sir, we are about to be ambushed from three different locations!"
The men rushed for cover, dodging a potential attack and cursing Kandahar province's tough terrain that is tailor made for the Taliban. The deadly obstacle course may haunt thousands of additional U.S. troops pouring into this corner of southern Afghanistan for what is expected to be the make-or-break offensive of the nearly 9-year-old war.
The thick fields, snaking canals and bomb-laden dirt roads in key districts around the provincial capital, Kandahar City, force jittery soldiers out of their heavily armored vehicles into a landscape dotted with towering mud compounds that provide militants with ideal cover.
Finding a way to overcome this terrain will be key to this summer's military operation in Kandahar, where at least 15 coalition soldiers have died since the beginning of the year, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.
The Marines who invaded the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah in Helmand province in February also faced somewhat challenging terrain since the area contained a network of canals that slowed their progress. But the poppy fields around Marjah were flat and were not surrounded by tall mud walls — unlike the vineyards around Kandahar.
"The agriculture and infrastructure of this country seem like they were designed specifically for guerrilla warfare," Lt. Scott Doyle said at the beginning of his platoon's recent patrol in the heart of Taliban country in Zhari district.
Their experience over the next three hours would provide a snapshot of what battle will look like for many troops in Kandahar.
Within minutes of leaving their rugged outpost in the village of Lako Khel, the soldiers intercepted radio chatter indicating the Taliban were monitoring their movements.
Doyle ordered his men to halt in one of the area's many vineyards, which contain rows of dirt mounds up to 6 feet (2 meters) high. The tall mud walls that often encircle the vineyards provide good cover for the soldiers but also make it easier for the Taliban to sneak around undetected.
The troops heard one of the militants say over the radio that the Taliban didn't have the key for the weapons cache nearby, so they would just keep an eye on the soldiers.
"They know we intercept their communications and could be deceiving us," Doyle said, scanning the rugged fields and thick tree cover in vain to catch a glimpse of the militants watching them.
The uncertainty about the Taliban's radio chatter makes it that much more difficult for the troops to navigate the challenging terrain, forcing them to think like chess masters and play out multiple scenarios to avoid an ambush.
The troops, part of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, questioned a pair of teenagers lingering in a nearby field.
One of them, 18-year-old Abdul Manan, gave the troops from 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company some information.
"Once you go past that farm to the east, there are lots of Taliban and one of them has a radio," Manan said.
But trying to discern friend from foe in this war is exceedingly difficult, especially in an area like Zhari where Taliban leader Mullah Omar first established the militant group in the 1990s.
"Unfortunately the Taliban use kids as spotters," said Doyle, a 38-year-old from Charlottesville, Virginia. "Even during firefights, they will send kids out to spot our positions."
For the full story click here for the Associated Press article