DEH-E KUCHAY, Afghanistan — For the American soldiers charged with bringing security to southern Afghanistan, heavily mined villages like this one are a most dangerous challenge.
Patrolling alongside Afghan soldiers and police officers, they scale 10-foot walls to avoid going through gateways, where insurgents are more likely to place booby traps. They cut through cornfields and pomegranate orchards instead of taking the paths, for the same reason.
They rarely take the same route twice, knowing that routine can be a soldier’s deadliest mistake. They can never be sure who is with the Taliban, or who is aiding the insurgents and laying the traps. Sometimes it is villagers or teenagers, just for the money, they suspect.
In some areas outside Kandahar, soldiers have found so many booby traps that they have had to destroy homes and villages rather than risk searching for the bombs. But the destruction is not the norm. Far more common is this kind of relentless patrolling by American forces, who remove mines one by one. As important is getting to know local people and, in time, earning their help and support.
After the Taliban deserted this village, in Arghandab District, about five months ago, it was steadily cleared of mines, and villagers have largely returned, thanks to the concentration of coalition forces in the area.
For the next year, the men of the Fourth Infantry Division, who arrived as part of the extra 30,000 American troops deployed this year to southern Afghanistan, will stay here and try to make sure that the Taliban do not return.
To do that, they must patrol constantly to work out who is laying the improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, as the military calls them, that keep appearing.
Since arriving more than 10 weeks ago, the soldiers have found an “obscene amount” — roughly 1,000 pounds — of explosives, said Lt. Tyson Walsh, the platoon leader of Company C, Task Force 1-66.
It was while accompanying the platoon on a patrol several weeks ago that Joao Silva, an experienced war photographer for The New York Times, stepped on a mine and was severely wounded.
“Please don’t walk on my fields, they are newly sown,” a farmer, waving a packet of seeds, called to the soldiers as they patrolled.
“Hajji, you know the deal,” an American sergeant answered. “The Taliban put mines on the paths, so we have to walk in the fields.”
The farmer’s concern presented a quandary for the soldiers, who would like to keep villagers on their side. “I think the farmers are laying the I.E.D.’s because we are walking through their fields,” said Sgt. Michael Ricchiuti. “They get paid to do it.”
The suspects the soldiers have caught are varied. One was a Pakistani who said he was doing construction work, but his hands tested full of explosive residue, the company commander, Capt. Walter Reed, said. Another was an Afghan youth from the town who claimed to be gathering brush.
The platoon also surprised three 16-year-olds digging a hole one day, Lieutenant Walsh said. The teenagers leapt over a wall and disappeared as soon as they saw the soldiers.
They need just three minutes to dig a hole, and often concoct the I.E.D. in stages to avoid detection, first laying a detonation cord or plastic jug of fertilizer, and then coming back later to hook up the initiator, or pressure plate.
The patrols are interrupting the work of the saboteurs, and sometimes the soldiers are finding half-assembled bombs. “We are catching the I.E.D.’s before they are made, so we are getting closer to them,” Captain Reed said.
Some of the mines are poorly assembled and do not always go off as planned, making the soldiers suspect that the Taliban’s expert I.E.D. cells pulled out ahead of the American offensive and left behind less-well-trained local boys to carry on the work. “I have a sense that we are watching the B-team,” Captain Reed said.
With the big influx of American troops, it took just a few weeks in August to clear the main Taliban forces from Arghandab District, and insurgent attacks dropped dramatically. But as has often been the case in this war, it is easier to drive out the Taliban than to keep them out. [...] go see page two - click the picture
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