Expelling the Taliban: No Easy Task for U.S. Soldiers

The mammoth battle for Kandahar will test soldiers' basic fighting skills by combining tactics learned from the trenches of World War I, the close-quarter fighting of World War II, the jungle-like conditions of Vietnam and the urban warfare of Iraq.

The hardest fighting will be along a long narrow swath of Kandahar province hugging the Arghendab River. The goal is to expel the Taliban from its command and control stronghold, thereby cutting the southern part of the country in two -- severing the Taliban communications and transportation corridor between Helmand Province and the city of Kandahar.

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To accomplish the job, a massive of force of 30,000 to 35,000 U.S., Afghan and international troops have been mobilized. Kandahar city will be flooded with Afghan and U.S. military police, 16 checkpoints around the city have been erected and a system of cameras is planned.

But the real fight will be in fertile suburbs just west of the city.

Taliban strongholds in the districts of Arghendab, Zhari and Panjway will draw special attention and the bulk of the forces. The districts run from the north to the southwest of Kandahar city.

The Taliban was born in the region and raised on a steady diet of insurrection against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Despite nine years of the U.S.-led war, the Taliban has retained its grip on the lush farmland along the Arghendab River.

The river is a deadly divide. On its south side, U.S., Canadian and Afghan forces enjoy relative freedom of movement and are beginning the long process of building governance by working with locals and the nascent district and provincial governments. The north side of the river is Taliban country.

Sengaray, the Zhari district's largest town with a population of approximately 10,000, lies about 15 miles west of Kandahar city. Soldiers of Alpha and Delta companies of the 1st Brigade, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division have been on the ground here less than two months and already are getting a taste of the fight ahead.

Sgt. Kenneth Kimbley from Livingston, Texas, only 20 years old and already on his second combat tour, said the soldiers' reception in the area lacks a certain southern hospitality.

"They really aren't that welcoming," he said in a deep Texas drawl. "The kids are always throwing rocks at us when we are on patrol and the adults throw grenades."

Grenades, thrown from short range, have become the latest weapon of choice for insurgents. In the last two weeks, more than a dozen old-style pineapple grenades have been lobbed over enormous mud walls at U.S. patrols as they move through Sengaray's maze-like streets and walkways.

A dozen or more soldiers have been injured. For about half of them, their wounds are so severe that they are now out of the fight and are returning home.

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In a recent violent exchange, soldiers from Alpha Company were so close to Taliban fighters that both sides were throwing grenades at each other. Several insurgents were killed. There were no injuries among Alpha Company.

The fight for Kandahar is described as a "rising tide of security" as opposed to an all-out single offensive like that launched by Marines in Marja in Helmand Province in February.

In Sengaray, soldiers still are trying to get a handle on their relatively new area of operation, and the battle's tide still appears in the early stages of a long and complex fight.

An example of the difficulty soldiers have in waging a counter-insurgency fight in the area is a recent Delta Company mission. Soldiers were conducting a sort of census in a small group of mud-walled compounds just east of Sengaray. They questioned landowners and residents about who they were and who lived in their homes, as well as photographing them for an ever-expanding database of who is who in Zhari district.

2nd Lt. Doug Patterson, from Falmouth, Massachusetts, spoke in soothing tones to one elderly resident who appeared unnerved by the questioning.

"Now sir, just to explain to you what we are doing today," said Patterson. "We're a new unit here and we're just trying to go around and get a feeling for all the locals here."

The man was unconvinced. When Patterson patiently asked if Afghan soldiers could take a quick look in his house, the man replied, "What are you looking for?"

Patterson reassured him they were just trying to make the area safe. The man, seemingly surprised, replied, "It is safe here."

"Mapping the human terrain," as soldiers call it, despite its Orwellian ring, is viewed as essential to waging a counter-insurgency campaign.

Capt. Lorne Grier, the Delta Company commander, acknowledges the risks and drawbacks involved in collecting the data, but said the benefits outweigh the costs.

"Once we know the population here," he said, "if we see different people in the area we say, 'Hey, you're a stranger. You're not from this area, because we've been in this village and now we have strange group of people. Where did you come from and why are you here?'"

Recently, Delta Company, along with several dozen Afghan soldiers, fanned out through the town around 4 a.m. About three hours into their work, four grenades were chucked over a wall at soldiers holding a position near a canal. All four grenades landed in the canal and harmlessly exploded.

With that, Delta Company went from census takers/anthropologists to soldiers bounding across wet farms fields thick with mud, over walls some as high as five feet and through pomegranate orchards so thick most the sunlight gets blocked out.

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Capt. Grier said, "It's what we call the old infantry ranger school-sort of fighting. It's maneuvering. They maneuver, we maneuver."

The unforgiving terrain here may be the biggest enemy. Within a few hundred yards, soldiers can go from a rocky desert to a densely packed urban area and, finally, to a wet, humid jungle-like environment.

Pfc. Joseph Snyder, from Pittsburgh, wasn't expecting such tricky terrain.

"It was tough," he said after a day of chasing grenade-throwing insurgents. "[I] got smoked going through all those orchards and climbing those walls."

The farmland along the Arghendab affords hardened insurgents all the food and water needed to sustain themselves indefinitely. And because of the unique farming practices, the area is what U.S. soldiers might describe as near-perfect "defensible space."

Small plots of land separated by walls as high as 10 feet can be perfect for baiting soldiers into the few openings that exist and then hitting them with remote controlled homemade bombs. Thick stands of pomegranates, eucalyptus trees and marijuana easily and quickly can conceal anyone or anything. Ditches and canals, shaded by trees and thick vegetation, form a nearly subterranean network of trenches from which insurgents can fight or which they can use to make an escape.

The grape fields are particularly troublesome. Each row of grapes is separated by mud walls, some as high as six feet. The walls are difficult to negotiate and make for excellent cover and concealment for small squads of Taliban on the move.

The U.S. can take away some of its enemies' advantages through technology. A wide array of cameras mounted on towers, balloons and a slew of drones and planes keeps a watchful eye on the Taliban day and night.

Lt. Col. Johnny K. Davis, commander of nearly 2,000 U.S. and Afghan soldiers, said the information gleaned from cameras isn't necessarily for targeting insurgents and killing them.

"You need to understand what they are doing and where they are living," Davis said. "We use our technology to do that."

Despite the technological advantage, it will take U.S. and Afghan boots on the ground in the contested area along the Arghendab River to finally turn the tide against the Taliban and allow locals, presumed to be "on the fence," to firmly throw their support behind the Afghan government.

When asked if there was any doubt the U.S. could do what the Soviets failed to achieve in the 1980s, Lt. Col. Davis confidently said, "Be there no doubt: We will take care of the Taliban and we will turn this area back over to the people."

But even if the U.S. roundly defeats the Taliban, it is not a given that the Afghan government can step in and fill the ensuing power vacuum.

Currently, Afghan government power throughout the province is miniscule. By one measure, only 200 of 600 government jobs are filled. Beyond the numbers, it is questionable whether the Afghan government has the ability to assert power in areas where it never has before.

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For instance, Karim Jan, the district governor in Zhari province, has a staff of one.

Development of the police force in the area is uneven. In some areas, the police are noticeably disciplined and professional. In other areas, drug use is rampant and the force appears prone to corruption.

One police officer who didn't want to be named said his commander regularly kept about half of his and fellow police officers' monthly salaries. He complained he barely made enough to buy cigarettes and sodas each month.

The performance thus far of the Afghan army is mixed, as well. Afghan units have been assigned, or partnered, with similar-sized U.S. units in a sort of on-the-job mentoring program.

The problem is that many Afghan units don't want to be mentored. They prefer that the U.S. military support them by providing living accommodations, food, water and supplies, and by allowing them to fight the Taliban their own way.

While many Afghan soldiers are quick on the trigger and enjoy the fight, they don't care much for training. The Afghan officer corps often lacks the ability or interest in planning for complex missions. The kandak, Pashto for battalion, assigned to Alpha Company has been pulled from the field for further training.

Despite the challenges, soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division are eager to turn the tables on the Taliban. The only way they see of shutting down the grenade attacks and turning the population to their side is to deal with the Taliban directly, where they live, in that narrow strip of defensible space along the Arghendab River.

As Sgt. Kimbley, sounding wise beyond his 20 years, put it: "I have no doubt that Alpha Company can whop some tail in there. They're all pretty pissed off about the Taliban attacking their buddies, so I'm sure if we're down there in those greens they'll unleash some vengeance on them."

Producer Matt McGarry contributed to this report.