March 19th, 2010, 07:34
Spring brings new burdens in Afghan valley
SARKARI BAGH, Afghanistan — The leaves have returned to the trees along the banks of the Arghandab River, and row after row of grape vines and pomegranate trees have received their first irrigation floods of the year.
Winter is yielding to spring, and that means one thing to the U.S. troops in this village outside Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban.
“It’s getting harder to see the insurgents,” Staff Sgt. Michael Payne says.
Payne and his company are among the thousands of NATO and U.S. troops that are filtering into the province for an offensive against the core of the Taliban’s strength. The preparation follows the successful clearing of Marjah, a city in nearby Helmand province.
The push is part of a counterinsurgency strategy by top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and is bolstered by 30,000 additional American troops that President Obama sent here to reverse Taliban gains.
Military leaders are positioning the new troops on the outskirts of Kandahar to prevent Taliban forces from infiltrating the city. Here in the Arghandab district is one of the most important points.
“If you control the environs around Kandahar, you go a long way to controlling Kandahar,” McChrystal said. “Unlike a Marjah operation, where there was a D-day ... it is more likely that this will be a series of activities that target different parts of it to increase that security.”
Payne and his men arrived in Arghandab Valley when the landscape was desolate. The valley, which sits across a small mountain range just north of Kandahar, is in full bloom. Visitors from Kandahar will be streaming in to take in the surroundings as a getaway from the city.
The growth creates blind spots along the river, and the floodwaters swallow up familiar paths the troops used for patrols.
Payne led a group of his men along the river Thursday in their armored personnel carriers to figure out where they can still navigate.
“Before, we could go anywhere,” he says. “A lot of these fields are flooded now — thick mud, holes, low branches. We’re just trying to have everything planned.”
Capt. Claude Lambert, who commands the U.S. company responsible for the north edge of the river, says the foliage gets so thick in parts that helicopters with thermal imaging technology can’t even see through the trees.
And with so much of their counterinsurgency strategy dependent on foot patrols to better communicate with the locals, that means insurgents will be able to take quick shots at them and quickly hide under cover.
“It just gets so dark in there,” Lambert says. “It concerns me greatly.”
The spring bloom also coincides with the beginning of the fighting season in Afghanistan. Traditionally, major fighting halts during the harsh winters, giving both sides time to regroup and plan, says Army Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which is responsible for the river valley.
“It’s going to get worse between now and the summer,” Jones says.
The Taliban has already started. This week a suicide bomber struck a patrol in Arghandab, wounding two U.S. soldiers. In Kandahar City, coordinated blasts, including two car bombs and six suicide attackers, killed dozens of people Saturday night.
The Taliban issued statements saying the Kandahar attack was a response to the buildup of U.S. troops ahead of the summer Kandahar offensive.
On Thursday, many of Lambert’s troops spent the day getting maintenance work done on their vehicles. A helicopter dropped off supplies, and troops rested as the relatively calm days of winter come to an end.
Pvt. Cory Brown finished up a two-hour shift standing guard at one of watchtowers surrounding the outpost late Thursday. The 20-year-old, on his first tour of Afghanistan, was looking forward to some sleep, but was ready for the fighting months ahead.
“Bring it,” he said.
March 19th, 2010 07:34