Outpost Terra Nova, (Reuters) – U.S. and Afghan soldiers have begun joint patrols in one of the most dangerous areas of the Taliban heartland in a bid to cut mounting casualties and tackle insurgents now running rampant.
U.S. and NATO coalition commanders believe Afghan soldiers, with their local understanding, will be able to curb a mounting toll among newly-arrived U.S. troops, caused mainly by hidden insurgent bombs.
“They have a better understanding of the atmospherics, if you like. They know when a pothole in the road is new. It’s like having an angel on your shoulder,” one senior coalition commander with responsibility for integration with the Afghans told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, mostly hidden in pots and using pressure plates as triggers, have maimed five U.S. soldiers in the hotly contested area around Combat Outposts Terra Nova and Nolen, near the Taliban stronghold of Charqulba village. One soldier lost both legs.
Grape and pomegranate plantations in the area provide perfect cover for insurgents to move unseen in the valley, a crucial infiltration route to Kandahar city.
Fighting in Arghandab and other areas neighbouring Kandahar is intensifying as U.S.-led forces prepare an offensive against Taliban strongholds, while simultaneously supporting government-friendly local councils and politicians.
Two other soldiers have died in Arghandab in recent days, one shot in the head at long-range by a hidden gunman, raising fears that foreign fighters or mercenaries could be moving in to reinforce local insurgents as snipers or bomb makers.
U.S. troops at Nolen, belonging to the 2nd Brigade combat team of the 101st Airborne Division, have had an especially hard time, with daily attacks from Charqulba, now deserted by villagers. The walk out from battalion headquarters only 700 metres away at Terra Nova is also potentially lethal.
Nolen is ringed on three sides with crude but deadly hidden bombs, while keeping the other side open is a constant battle, as insurgents bury more IEDs each night.
While the bombs are smaller than the armoured vehicle breaking bombs favoured by Iraq insurgents, their use reached a high across Afghanistan in late June with more than 300 exploded or located, up from about 50 a week in mid-2007.
The United States is shipping $3 billion (1.96 billion pound) worth of counter-IED equipment to Afghanistan.
In Arghandab, troops are equipped with huge bomb and ambush resistant trucks carrying jamming equipment and heated “rhino” booms at the front to trigger bombs.
“I’ve been to Iraq, but this place is something else. We’ve only been here a month and already I’ve been shot at three times and an IED exploded just near my face,” Squad Leader Matthew Hubbard, 28, said.
While the killing of three British Ghurkhas this month by a rogue Afghan soldier has stretched trust between 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops and the Afghan army, U.S. combat medic Dylan Schwinn said it was safer to patrol jointly.
“They know if something is out of place or if something doesn’t look right,” Schwinn said.
Afghan sergeant Ezatallah Yusafi, 22, said his troops fought in bloody clashes around Marjah, in Helmand province, in February and were now ready to secure Arghandab
Our guys, they are really smart. On some days in Jahar, they found around 20 IEDs and reported it to the U.S. army,” he said, referring to a town near the outposts.
U.S. battalion commander David Flynn said having Afghans on joint operations would have a decisive effect on the Taliban, as villagers were supportive of the Afghan army, if not always of U.S. troops.
“The villagers here will for the first time see a large group of Afghans that are here to protect their own people and protect their own country. But there is no one operation where we can say, ‘alright, the witch is dead’,” Flynn said.