They are young men who served in Iraq. Young men who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, who have seen this terrain before, who have fought for different commanders, who survived to come back here. Young men who are now being told that their toughest mission might yet be to come. Young men who are at the forefront of those missions. What in past wars military leaders and analysts used to refer to as "The Tip Of The Spear."
We spent almost three weeks on what is rapidly becoming the front lines of the Afghan war, if there is a front lines. Here, where the Taliban was born, the war grows more violent by the day. Insurgents like to defend the places that are symbolically significant to them.
Nobody knows that better than Alpha company, 2nd battalion, 5th Stryker brigade. Every day these men are harassed – or bombed – or ambushed just a few miles from the mosque where Mullah Mohammad Omar created the Taliban in 1994. This is southwest Kandahar.
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In a week that has seen some of the highest casualty figures in this eight-and-a-half-year-long war, Alpha's battles are a reminder of all the threats that come to bear on Americans these days -- and a preview of what's to come this summer.
Sgt. First Class Alan McComie has survived 17 roadside bombs in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He is, as you might expect, no nonsense. A crooked smile, tattoos running down his arms. He prefers a baseball cap when his commanders don't mind his wearing one.
Four months ago he lost his best friend to an Improvised Explosive Device – the IED. But he'd rather not talk about it.
"The biggest threat's the IEDs," McComie said to us in Lak-o-Khel, a base with no running water and one tent for a couple dozen soldiers. "They're targeting either the trucks here on the roads. Or they're targeting us dismounted walking through the fields."
Going Into the Heart of Darkness
The area we were in is known as Zhari. Two decades ago, the Soviets gave up on this district, fighting some of their final battles of the war and eventually ceding most of it to mujahedeen fighters. They called it the "Heart of Darkness." Years before Mullah Omar took the oath of a few dozen men who would become the Taliban. He lost his eye when he peeked around the corner of a Zhari mud house during a firefight.
U.S. commanders admit Zhari is still Taliban country because there hasn't been enough troops here to guarantee security. That's why the district is a principle target of this summer's troop surge – ordered by President Obama – put into place by Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McComie and his men won't be around for that surge. They've been "in country" almost a year now, and everything they've tried to do -- every village elder they drink tea with, every time they lure the Taliban into firing to map their movements -- will become setup for the 2nd brigade of the 101st Airborne. Thousands are pouring into this area.
The newly arriving troops are under no illusions. Zhari, unlike neighboring Maiwand, does not have the patchy security that has allowed Blackwatch Company to focus on governance. Zhari has been and will remain a "kinetic" fight, to use the military term, for the next few months. Only as security spreads slowly can a district governor -- encouraged, persuaded, perhaps propped up by the Americans -- begin to help the local government plant its flag in an area long dominated by insurgents.
"The long term solution in areas like this is not just to drive the Taliban out. It's not just to establish persistent security," says Lt. Col. Jeffry French, McComie's brigade commander, during an interview in the Zhari district center -- which is inside a U.S. base. "It's also to have the Afghan leadership and the Afghan community stepping up."