Afghanistan: Before fighting season ends, one last push

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The World

TALUKAN, Afghanistan — After days of waiting for the big mission in the Horn of Panjwaii to begin, a room full of infantrymen watched two Chinook helicopters packed with Special Forces touch down in the tilled fields outside the village of Talukan.

On a black and white monitor in the headquarters at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, the huge birds kick up clouds of dust as tiny figures race through it and are lost in the flickering image. A huge AC-130 gunship darts across the frame, then back. Little flashes of gunfire light up the night.

The Horn of Panjwaii is a narrow spit of fertile land between two rivers that separate the Taliban hotbed of Zhari from the virtually uninhabitable Registan Desert to the south. The Horn has not seen coalition or Afghan troops since 2007, and is considered an important command and resupply area for Taliban operating in Kandahar province.

In late October, U.S., Canadian and Afghan troops began pushing into the Horn from the east and west, while simultaneously clearing Zhari from north to south and setting up blocking positions in Registan to catch fighters fleeing into the red desert.

Talukan is the largest village in the Horn, although fewer than 1,000 residents live here. It lies in the geographic center of the clearing operations. The mission to take Talukan was the last big push against the Taliban during this fall’s all-important offensive in Kandahar province, the traditional stronghold of the Taliban.

"We're going to leave the middle for last," said Lt. Col. Rob Harman, commander of the 101st Airborne's 1-187 Infantry, before the offensive began. His unit was handpicked to the lead the Horn offensive. "We'll try to concentrate the fighters in Talukan and drop in right on top of them."

The battle royale that they were expecting, some even hoping for, never materialized and probably never will as troops continue to make sweeps through the area in the coming weeks. The winter typically pushes Kandahar's fighters into Pakistan where they rest, train and supply.

While Afghan troops managed a complicated night air assault without any big problems, persistent looting and malingering proved they are far from ready to wage a counterinsurgency campaign with any reduction in U.S. oversight. Despite outnumbering American troops in Talukan three to one, it is very much an American-led mission, pushed forward with American dollars and American sweat.

Infiltration

Twenty-four hours after the Special Forces soldiers cleared improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, between the helicopter landing zone and Talukan, nearly 100 American and more than 300 Afghan troops were packed like sardines into Chinooks, occupying every available inch of space.

As six Chinooks touched down in the moonlit fields, hot wind and whipping dust filled the helicopters. Afghan soldiers strolled nonchalantly down the ramps, while American troops shouted in vain for them to run and find cover.

At the edges of the field, the American squad leaders crowded around several Special Forces troops securing the landing zone. The Green Berets then led the throngs through narrow streets to the compounds they occupied by force during the previous day.

The six helicopters returned 20 minutes later, bearing the remainder of the soldiers and the supplies they'd need to set up bases in Talukan. Their departure left a deep silence over the farmland, broken only by radio chatter and jackals baying in the distance.

Within an hour, the 400 troops had moved into several compounds surrounding Talukan's bazaar area, which is the economic center of the Horn. On the west end of the main street running through the village, troops from 1st Platoon, Dragon Company, 1-187 Infantry, led by Staff Sgt. Brandon Murphy, occupied a large madrassa and mosque compound that was built like a 13th-century fortress, with a guard tower at each corner and ramparts on three sides. The Special Forces troops who appropriated it the night before warned that the Taliban would not be pleased that Americans were staying there.

Digging In

The troops' first few days in Talukan were spent filling sandbags, reinforcing the compounds, establishing guard procedures and figuring out how they were going to get resupplied with food and water. Everything they had they carried in on their backs.

Wells supply plentiful water in the compounds, but its smell is a dire warning to an American stomach. There is no electricity beyond the batteries soldiers brought with them to power radios and flashlights. The only crop that is fully in season is marijuana.

The headquarters compound, right next to the bazaar, is the home of a poor farmer who cultivates grapes, opium poppy and cannabis. There is a high wall surrounding the complex and every building is attached or incorporated into the wall as if mud were poured into a huge mold. The tallest building is for drying and storing grapes, and some of the Afghan soldiers sleep on the open floor while bats chase moths through the ventilation holes high above them.

Three or four fires burn at night and troops feed the flames with heaps of ancient gnarled grapevines, thick as a human leg. Shadows dance on the compounds’ inner walls as Pakistani music played on an Afghan soldier's dying cell phone. Soldiers boil rice and potatoes bought from the bazaar over little cook-fires in rusty pans. Two pet birds with clipped wings strut around the courtyard, chirping and pecking at ants.

The bazaar

The dusty, litter-strewn main street through Talukan hosts about 30 shops selling things like motorcycle parts, various petroleum products, local vegetables and fruit and Chinese-made sandals.

As the soldiers arrived, shopkeepers locked their stores and fled to their homes. Taliban fighters used the loudspeakers at a mosque to warn merchants not to sell anything to the soldiers.

While U.S. troops were busy filling sandbags, some of the Afghan soldiers broke into the bazaar shops and stole food, clothing and valuables. Although the Afghan troops were provided the same MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) that the Americans were eating, they complained that they were not Halal.

Although they ate MREs in addition to the food they looted, one of the three Afghan units in Talukan refused to patrol until they were given Halal MREs. Another one of the units refused to patrol because their company was split across several compounds — a necessary move to watch over the entire village. Some of the Afghan troops neglected to bring ammunition for their weapons, and complained that the area was too dangerous for them to patrol.

Shopkeepers gradually filtered back into the bazaar to assess the damage. While walking between two compounds, Capt. John Hintz, the Dragon Company commander, approached several merchants and encouraged them to reopen their shops, and spread the word for other shopkeepers to follow suit.

"We want to buy food — if there's a butcher or someone who bakes bread, we'll pay well," Hintz said to the men. "Don't let the Taliban intimidate you — my men control this area now."

Hintz also pledged to pay for any damage caused by American troops' firepower or Afghan troops' looting. The next day most of the shops were open. The following day it appeared that all the shops had reopened except the butcher, whose meat lockers had been totally cleaned out by the Afghan army.

Defusing the streets

Clearing the routes through Talukan is a methodical but exciting process. The Afghan troops were able to put aside their grievances and patrol with the Americans because of the awesome might the U.S. combat engineers bring to bear on the heavily mined streets.

The engineers fire APOBSs, which are essentially 50-meter-long rocket-propelled tube socks filled with grenades that clear a footpath soldiers can walk through safely. When the APOBS sets off an IED in a thunderclap of black smoke and dust, the soldiers break out in wild whooping.

The APOBSs get hung up in trees, blasting branches off and turning leaves to confetti, they blast right through thick mud walls, and they imbue soldiers with a great deal of confidence in a dangerous and unfamiliar area.

Clearing Talukan's farming compounds means creating paths through walls to maneuver through the mazelike neighborhoods, climbing to the roofs, jumping down into piles of drying produce covered with huge wasps and making lots of big booms.

Two teams blasted their way through walls to search the compounds for fighters, who had fled at the apocalyptic crashing of the APOBSs. Talukan's residents had also fled, with the exception of an elderly farmer and his wife. Evidence of a hasty exit was all around — livestock and valuables left in the open, fresh fruit in the kitchens.

Again the Afghan soldiers looted what they could without the Americans seeing, carrying off bags of pomegranates from the elderly and half-blind farmer's orchard.

Despite having many valuables stolen by the Afghan army, residents of Talukan pointed out several IEDs to the troops, including a buried 80-pound bomb that soldiers had already walked past dozens of times. A bomb that size is more than enough to destroy a heavily armored vehicle. In the first five days of clearing, soldiers found and destroyed 28 IEDs within Talukan.

Taliban fighters had been taking potshots at troops in an attempt to lure them to a house they had rigged with huge IEDs. Late one night, as soldiers watched from the rooftops, an Air Force bomber leveled the house in an avalanche of explosions that shook the earth for miles.

The way forward

As the nights get steadily colder in Talukan, the troops will face even more difficult living conditions. Rumors fly among them about how long they will occupy the austere, unheated huts. They live on the edge of being overwhelmed by a sanitation or resupply problem. Shaving is out of the question — there is simply not enough clean water, and most soldiers brought extra ammunition instead of razor blades and shaving cream.

A week after the air assault, Hintz and the Afghan battalion commander organized a meeting of village elders at the mosque and madrassa compound occupied by their men. About 60 Talukan men showed up and sat in a circle around an old mat with United Nations markings on it. In the corner of the compound a 1960s Land Rover with the same markings sat rusting away.

The chief complaint among the villagers was the occupation of six compounds, which displaced about 100 people. According to the villagers, the families have fled to a relative's compound in the Registan Desert and are living in very difficult conditions with winter approaching. Even if they were allowed to return, they would find their firewood supplies severely depleted and most of their cannabis crop chopped down to make a landing area for helicopters.

"We can't empty the houses," Hintz said. "We're here for a long time. I realize it's your home, it's somebody's home, but we've got 400 men here who have to live somewhere."

The Talukan man acting as village representative seemed frustrated with this answer, then made his complaint several different ways before Hintz told him to move on to a different subject.

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