ABC's Matt Gutman reports from Sultan Bawka, Afghanistan:
I'm embedded with Echo Company of the 2-3 Marines, hunkered down in a dust filled camp outside the hamlet of Sultan Bakwa. It’s a pastoral place of irrigated poppy fields hugging dried up wadis. Clumps of mud forts comprise the lonely villages connected by rocky tracks. It’s also one of the most dangerous places in the world for US troops.
I asked company commander Capt Paul Webber, who was sharing mutton and rice with the district police chief, if he ever expected to encounter so many IED’s.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. Three tours in Iraq, in Fallujah nothing like this.”
Three of this battalion's troops have been killed in this part of the Farah-Helmand province in the past two weeks – not far from Bala Baluk, where dozens of civilians were killed in that errant US airstrike last month.
Indeed the frequency of IED strikes is astounding, and so far unreported. In the month they’ve been here this company has encountered dozens of IED’s. A single convoy from this company hit three IED’s this week, five marines were wounded. Also this week, a Marine died trying to disarm another roadside bomb. All told, this battalion encountered 13 IEDs Wednesday.
I spoke to one lance corporal from a platoon that’s lost ten of its 40 members to IED’s, that’s an extremely high casualty rate. He was in one of the blasts, and was evacuated to Camp Leatherneck. He had gone blind for two days and had lost some hearing. None of the other four men in his humvee were killed, but all were medivaced for treatment in Germany. One lost his leg. Another nearly lost both his legs. Others suffered serious shrapnel wounds.
This could be a harbinger of what the rest of the surge forces encounter as elections approach on August 20th.
For what it’s worth, Capt Webber is convinced only 20% of the Taliban in his area of operation are hardcore ideologues. The rest, he says, are farmers making and laying bombs for money. It’s one reason he feels he can co-opt them. He hopes to hold a shura with the local Taliban, because as he says “I can’t kill them all, so I think it’s easy to turn a majority of them that the way of the Taliban is not best for Afghanistan.”
He has no illusions that this will work. Is it possible, I ask? “I don’t know, but I’m going to try.”