LANDING ZONE NORTH DAKOTA, Afghanistan—The men of Battle Company scrambled down the rear ramps of their Chinook helicopters and into dust and the pebbles whipped up by the rotors roaring overhead.
They quickly fanned out across landing zones named after U.S. states atop ridges and escarpments of crumbling dirt, loose shale and cascades of boulders wedged against each other like avant-garde sculptures.
The landing zones were set high on the sides of the isolated Marah Valley, about 9,000 feet above sea level between massive peaks of the Deh Chopan district of southern Zabul province.
Down below, villagers tended fields and flocks and threshed wheat. Chimes of cowbells, brays of donkeys and cries of rollicking children drifted from hamlets of dried mud, carried on a languid wind tinged with the fragrance of mountain flowers.
But the tranquility was deceptive. The valley and the surrounding district have become a battleground as U.S. troops have tried to crush a growing insurgency by the Taliban, the extremist Islamic movement the U.S.-led attack drove from power nearly four years ago.
During the two previous days, U.S. special forces had skirmished in the valley with guerrillas who'd tried unsuccessfully to hit U.S. aircraft with a shoulder-fired missile and a rocket-propelled grenade. On the second day, a U.S. soldier was ambushed and killed at the northern end of the valley. After that, a U.S. aircraft had caught some insurgents in the open. The camera on a Predator spy drone picked out 18 bodies, U.S. officers said.
And just minutes after Battle Company hit the ground, the crew of a Black Hawk helicopter carrying its battalion commander spotted two Taliban, one of whom was carrying a heavy machine gun, bolting up a hillside. A door gunner cut them down.
"This is a straight-up war," said Army Capt. Michael Kloepper, of Caldwell, N.J., Battle Company's commander, surveying the valley from behind a pair of new sunglasses sent from home. "Yesterday, this was a raging battlefield. Now, it is this."
Kloepper, a tall, broad-shouldered 29-year-old West Point graduate who revealed that he's been trying to curb what his men call "an anger-management problem," ordered a mortar team to set up on a nearby ridgeline.
But the ridgeline blocked radio communications with some of his unit, so he and the rest of his headquarters' squad set off on a gut-wrenching clamber to join the mortar team on the higher slope.
Battle Company is part of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vincenza, Italy. For four months, it's been chasing the Taliban, trying to prevent the insurgents from disrupting Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. Its current mission is to search the scattered hamlets and dense groves of apple and almond trees of the Marah Valley and surrounding mountains to flush out and kill any Taliban it found.
The unit was accompanied by 60 Afghan troops and could call in the Black Hawk, two Apache helicopter gunships and A-10 tank-buster jets circling overhead.
The guerrillas, however, avoided exposing themselves for the rest of the Aug. 9-10 mission.
For those two days, Battle Company and Afghan troops swept compounds and fields, wheat piles and orchards. They trudged up side valleys, along steep goat trails and through ravines as the temperature reached into the high 90s.
Mostly in their late teens and early 20s from places such as Los Angeles and Oklahoma, they lugged at least 60 pounds of gear each, sucked cigarettes when they could and bantered about girlfriends and what they would do when their tours were done. Their chest pouches were stuffed with ammunition, radios and grenades. They drank water through plastic tubes attached to water bags strapped onto their packs.
Perspiration stained the backs of uniforms, formed outlines around the edges of body armor and dripped from beneath the brims of heavy Kevlar helmets. Even a short scramble up a twisting gully in the heat and the altitude would redden faces and leave lungs heaving for air.
Many of the U.S. troops agreed that the months of hard slogging had been far tougher than an earlier yearlong deployment in northern Iraq.
"We rode everywhere in Iraq," said Sgt. Richard Tiegue from Bristol, Va.
The operation was especially wearing on Kloepper's two-man mortar team. In addition to their regular gear, one lugged the steel tube and bipod—weighing some 32 pounds—from a neck sling, while the second hauled the 14-pound base plate strapped to his backpack.
At the end of the second day, the tube hauler retched in the dirt, on elbows and knees, his face cupped in his hands, until his stomach was dry.
The Afghans carried less gear. But clad in body armor and toting their AK-47s and ammo pouches, they, too, seemed to struggle at times in the heat.
Small steps uphill, relief on the flats, downhills and the occasional rest stop. Swig some water. Sit and catch your breath. Move out. Stay alert. Watch the rocks and your buddy's back.
While Battle Company never encountered the Taliban, the enemy was almost always nearby, their frequent walkie-talkie chatter monitored by Kloepper's Afghan interpreter on his own set.
But the insurgents continuously shifted frequencies, and the frustrated Americans couldn't lock onto their locations.
"What about the guys hiding in Marah?" one Taliban asked another, referring to a hamlet of the same name as the valley that some of Kloepper's men and their Afghan allies were searching.
"I don't know anything about them," came the reply.
"He's very clear. He's down there, no more than 150 meters away," estimated the interpreter, whose name can't be revealed for his protection, pointing into a thick stand of trees.
For hours in the sun, the U.S. and Afghan soldiers checked compounds in the valley. They rounded up the men and compared their names and faces to a list and photos of known Taliban.
In Nabi Kalay, where the 18 Taliban were said to have died, residents claimed that U.S. aircraft had killed one male and two female villagers—whose bodies were already buried—and wounded five others who'd been taken to a hospital.
There was no damage found, and Kloepper was skeptical. Some said the dead and wounded had been working in the fields in the dark when the aircraft struck. Others claimed the aircraft homed in on a light in their compound.
On Aug. 15, the U.S.-led coalition announced that an investigation had determined that the aircraft had struck more than a mile away and weren't responsible for any civilian casualties.
As the sun began to set, Battle Company's squads converged on Marah. The call to evening prayer sounded from the adobe mosque. In a small clearing below it, U.S. and Afghan soldiers screened some 30 men they'd rounded up during the day.
In a narrow lane outside the mosque, other exhausted, sweat-soaked U.S. and Afghan soldiers sat talking or eating—one American did some push-ups—prompting glares from men in the mosque courtyard distracted from their prayers.
That was the first of several hints that the U.S. and Afghan soldiers might inadvertently be fueling support for the Taliban.
Other hints came during a gathering, or shura, of male villagers at which Lt. Mark Bush of Mexico Beach, Fla., tried to explain the searches and roundups.
"Today, Americans have come to this valley because yesterday there was a big gunfight. The Taliban shot from the tops of the mountains at American soldiers," he said. "Whenever that happens, more American soldiers will come here. In order for us not to be here and bother you, you should not harbor the Taliban."
But his plea to turn in Taliban went unheeded.
Hamid Ullah, the senior elder in Marah, spoke harshly.
Afghan President Hamid "Karzai has said to respect all religions. But today the Americans were walking in the mosque with boots on," he charged. "When the Americans clear compounds, they break our locks and boxes and doors and enter without permission. The bad guys have never interfered with our compounds or broken our locks.
"It is not in our culture for someone to come into our compounds and see our women." He insisted that the Taliban were in the mountains, and the men rounded up were all "good guys."
While it's standard procedure for U.S. troops to seek permission to conduct a search accompanied by an elder, they're under orders to break into locked compounds and rooms when keys aren't produced.
A member of one of Battle Company's sister companies was killed on July 25 when he surprised three Taliban hiding in a compound room.
As night approached, the temperature dropped and the troops moved out. They downed rations before going to sleep in an orchard on the bone-chilling, rock-strewn ground.
The march resumed before sunup, and the troops searched two more hamlets during a five-mile slog up and down steep trails in the broiling sun.
The patrol ended the same way it had begun, with Battle Company piling back onto Chinooks.
The results: Two dead Taliban, their weapons and radios seized, and three detained suspects who weren't expected to be confirmed as guerrillas. Two motorcycles—banned in Zabul because they're the Taliban's favorite vehicle for drive-by shootings—confiscated, and a rusty, 88-year-old U.S.-made rifle and a bandoleer of homemade bullets recovered from piles of wheat.
"This," said Kloepper, "was a typical patrol."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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