Strykers Patrol Border in Taliban Heartland

Photo: Strykers Patrol Border in Taliban Heartland: Struggling to Patrol a Lawless Area the Size of Rhode Island and ConnecticutABC News
A sniper with the 8th squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment adjusts his scope while on duty at an outpost near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border on Dec. 7, 2009.

The back ramps drop open and two dozen American soldiers emerge from their Strykers for an impromptu stop in the desert.

While on patrol in the northern part of Kandahar province near the Pakistan border, they spot an unusual scene of four adult men and two young boys picnicking in the middle of nowhere.

"You guys said you're from Lowy Kariz?" one of the soldiers asks through an interpreter. "The reason why I'm asking is because we come up here daily and we've never seen any movement over here when we saw you guys we were a little suspicious of what was going on. So we came over to check it out."

On PatrolPlay

The nearby village of Lowy Kariz has a strong Taliban influence and is a staging area for insurgents en route to the western part of Kandahar province where American forces have recently suffered high losses.

To an uninformed observer, the outing looks legitimate: A white blanket is spread across the sand and holds a gleaming silver tea pot and a small pile of candy wrappers.

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But there's something else. Just a few feet away are several yellow plastic containers known for carrying two things in this region: cooking oil and suicide bombs, depending upon the menu.

The young boys, sitting on the blanket next to the men, appear scared as the soldiers continue with questions. Nearby is a white Toyota.

Click here for a map of where the Strykers are on patrol

"Does your vehicle die all of the time?" one of them asks, noting a clump of red wires inside. "Tell him I have a Dodge Neon back in the States that dies all of the time. I always have to charge it, okay. But that wire can be used as crimpers on any type of battery source or power sources like bombs," the soldier said.

"Does he mind if I look in the back seat?"

The interpreter exchanges a few words with the picnicker.

"No, no, go ahead," the interpreter says.

The soldiers continue searching, but find nothing more. They return to their vehicles and head back on patrol.

The soldiers are called the Strykers – named for their armored Stryker vehicles. Officially they are the 8th Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment from Ft. Lewis, Wash., and they arrived here five months ago. They are the first American troops patrolling this border.

Strykers' Patrol Extends to Freedoms Gate

Their focus is to stop foreign fighters and weapons from crossing between the two countries and to prevent the trafficking of illicit materials - like the explosive ingredient ammonium nitrate – from entering the country. They also try to stop contraband, like drugs, which fund the insurgency.

It's a massive undertaking.

"We've got essentially 100 to 150 soldiers that on any given day may be out there trying to patrol that area, so it's pretty significant," said Major Dave Johnson, operations officer for the unite at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak.

"Then you're dealing with the terrain with desert in the south, mountainous in the north, numerous valleys and dried-up river beds which the enemy can try to get in, as well as smugglers. So the challenges are pretty significant."

As the Strykers patrol a region the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, one of their roles is to monitor both Highway 4, which goes from Quetta, Pakistan to Kandahar City – and the legal border crossing, called the Freedom Gate, is between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Spin Boldak.

The other side of the gate is believed to be home to Taliban and insurgents trying to cross the border, as well as recruiting locations for suicide bombers.

It may sound like mission impossible, but Lt. Col. Bill Clark, commander of Task Force Blackhawk which carries out the assignment, insists it is doable.

"If you look at the border, not every place is trafficable," Clark, 44, told ABC News. "You can't bring vehicles across every piece of the border. So you have to take a look at parts of the border that you can have an impact on, that you can help to deny, to delay, this movement that I'm talking about and focus your efforts there."

"People are creatures of habit, they develop habits of where they go, what times they go and how they do things," Clark added. "Our job is to figure that out and change those."

The American troops work with the Afghan Border Patrol to monitor the region. They also try to work with local villagers. But most Afghans in this region say they care more about fresh water than they do about security issues, despite the Taliban menace.

Drones Would Help Monitor Afghan Border

"A lot of populations up here are under pressure from the Taliban," said Major Mike Saxon. "Sometimes you have to be careful. If they're seen as working too closely with us, they'll be under some threat."

Ideally, the Americans would be able to establish permanent outposts in these village areas, but at the moment, they do not have the troops to do so.

"We just don't have the combat power, the forces to stay there to convince the people that we will be there provide the security for them. Nor does the government of Afghanistan have the forces down here to do that same thing as well. So although we do go out and conduct engagements with village leaders, the border police come out with us, but once we leave, the Taliban are free to come back in and intimidate the villagers."

The alternative to manpower, is technology.

"We need some more unmanned aerial vehicles helping us out flying over and providing surveillance of the border in key areas," said Major Johnson.

Despite President Obama's troop surge and focus on stopping the infiltration from Pakistan, Johnson and his Strykers will be on their own.