Afghanistan patrol shows limits of U.S. equipment, supplies

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 6, 2009 

CHAHARQULBA, Afghanistan -- As the sky hinted at dawn, U.S. soldiers went hunting for Taliban in the Arghandab Valley. They had satellite-linked monocles to display the locations of platoons. They could summon an aerial drone to buzz overhead with a surveillance camera. They could call on Kiowa helicopters for search-and-destroy missions.

On this mission, however, one of their most valuable assets was an informant: a farmer with a taste for opium.

"It all came down to one guy who said, 'The Taliban stole my motorcycle.' He was high, and he was pissed, and he give us the tip on where to find them," said Sgt. Kenneth Rickman, 34, of Vandalia, Ill.

In America, the Obama administration is debating its strategy: whether to focus mainly on al Qaida terrorists or continue a wide-ranging fight against Taliban forces through much of Afghanistan.

In the farmlands and ancient villages of the Arghandab, an Army campaign launched this summer has been a slow, difficult grind, and insurgent forces continue to hold sway over large areas. Technology alone isn't enough to win this fight.

The soldiers on the early October mission were part of the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the first Army unit to deploy to Afghanistan with the eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles. The Strykers have formidable firepower and sophisticated communication and tracking systems.

The vehicles have been an important asset in the desert lands that envelop much of southern Afghanistan. However, narrow roads and bridges and the perils of improvised bombs have left them unable to penetrate this belt of farmlands, which is an important refuge for Taliban fighters.

Earlier this month, more than 100 soldiers of Bravo Company, along with Afghan and Canadian troops, struck out on foot for a clearing operation from a small outpost established in an abandoned farm compound.

Such forays are grueling for 5th Brigade soldiers. They pack their bags with ammunition and extra batteries for radios and other electronic gear, and sling on wraparound armor with ceramic plates. Then, under an often-scorching sun, they carry loads of up to 100 pounds through arduous terrain.

Soldiers say that the gear's weight sometimes forces them to reduce the food and water they pack into the field. In one mission in early September, some platoons got marooned in an orchard for several days. Supplies ran so low that they turned to juice-filled pomegranates and other fruit to maintain their strength.

"The weight has been the biggest issue for us, tactically," said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Dimico of Yakima, Wash. "You can't always carry enough water because you have to carry all the extra stuff."

On this mission, U.S. commanders thought that the Afghan army would handle resupplies with a couple of trucks that would ferry water and food to sustain a multi-day push through Taliban territory.

As the soldiers left the outpost, they shunned roads and trails because of the threat of buried bombs that could be touched off by an errant step. They trudged through cornfields, climbed over mud wall after mud wall, hopped irrigation ditches and navigated stands of pomegranate trees, where visibility shrank amid the thick foliage. Often, a fetid smell wafted from the dank soil of recently irrigated lands. Yet there were unexpected whiffs of mint and other herbs, including marijuana plants, which grew in profusion in some areas.

The 5th Brigade soldiers have found the Taliban to be disciplined fighters who pick their spots to engage and can melt into the greenery. In the early morning hours, there were no visible signs of hostile forces, only a distant rattle of machine-gun fire.

The soldiers assumed that the Taliban had spotters hidden in the trees, and they were wary of an ambush. It was difficult to know whether a farmer bicycling along a road with a load of fresh-mown grass also might be an insurgent's informant.

"They got eyes everywhere," said 2nd Lt. Kyle Hovatter, 24, of Tallahassee, Fla.

By 7:15 a.m., the soldiers reached the largely abandoned village of Chaharqulba, a collection of mud-walled homes that lacked electricity or running water.

In the late 1980s, mujahedeen fighters had hunkered down in this village and the surrounding area as they staged a successful defense against Soviet troops who tried to occupy this farming zone. They benefited from underground bunkers and mud-walled irrigation systems that offered cover, according to "The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War," a historical book that's circulated widely among U.S. Army officers here.

Earlier this year, the Taliban moved into Chaharqulba and most of the villagers left.

On this morning, there was no sign of anyone as the soldiers walked down the village street bordered by tall mud walls. Only the distant baying of a donkey broke the eerie quiet.

North of the village, one of the platoons met up with the aggrieved farmer, who wore a blue robe and turban, and wanted to talk.

The farmer declared that the Taliban had just taken his motorcycle, and he'd lead the soldiers to their location in a nearby field.

As the platoon approached the site, the soldiers faced a few rounds of machine-gun fire, which forced them to take cover. They pushed on, and unexpectedly encountered two Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s and grenades buzzing down a dirt road on a motorbike.

One of them raised his AK-47 to fire. He was late on the draw, however.

Both men were killed in a burst of gunfire, and the Americans claimed the bodies for photographing and inspection. In the following hours, other Taliban sporadically peppered the platoon with small-arms fire and a few rocket-propelled grenades.

"They want their bodies back as much as we want ours back," said Rickman, the Illinois sergeant, who was part of the platoon that came under fire.

Through the fighting, the blue-robed farmer was detained, and he became increasingly distraught. He said he needed a hit of opium, and sought without success for a temporary release to head home and get a fix.

The skirmish drew the rest of the U.S., Afghan and Canadian soldiers to reinforce the platoon.

Two Kiowa helicopters showed up and, as they searched the orchards for Taliban, they made a big find: two houses that appeared to have been turned into bomb-making factories. Explosives fashioned from fertilizer were spread on their roofs to dry.

The Kiowas rained down rockets on the site and dived into the orchards to fire at insurgents.

The mission seemed to be nearing a Taliban stronghold. Commanders made plans for the troops to bed down in the compound, and push forward in the morning.

After more than a dozen hours in the field, however, many soldiers had run out of water; some had been dry since midafternoon. "When you don't have water within about two hours, soldiers start going mentally and physically downhill," Rickman said.

The soldiers needed a night resupply, and that would require the Afghan army to send two small trucks into the verdant zone filled with bottled water. That was something that the Afghans weren't willing to do, given the risk of buried bombs.

Reluctantly, the commanders decided to return to the outpost where the day's mission began. The soldiers would regroup to search for Taliban on another day.

(Bernton is a reporter for The Seattle Times.)

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