In Kandahar, landmines and bombs are there to welcome NATO troops
DEH-E-KUCHAY, Afghanistan — Sgt. James Leatherwood and Spc. Bryce Esco could sense something was amiss.
Even though a bomb-sniffing dog had passed just moments earlier, the spot at the base of the mud-brick wall looked softer than the rest, and that did not seem right.
Leatherwood manned a metal detector as Esco lay flat on his belly and probed delicately with a knife.
“Wire!” Esco shouted. “Everybody get back!”
The soldiers scrambled to safety. Air Force bomb disposal specialists with the patrol defused the device — two jugs of homemade explosives linked by a booby-trapped electrical cord — as other soldiers marveled at how the pair had staved off potential disaster.
“Did I tell you how much I love you two?” said Staff Sgt. Erik Adams, their squad leader. “I love you more and more every day. You’ve saved our lives twice in the last two weeks.”
The discovery came at the end of a five-day mission in which U.S. and Afghan forces established an outpost in this tiny village in the Arghandab valley, just west of Kandahar city. As U.S. and other NATO forces gear up to secure the provincial capital, military officers say that establishing control over Deh-e-Kuchay and adjacent districts is crucial.
“Right now, this is the main effort mission for Kandahar,” said Maj. Scott Brannon, operations officer for the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which has been in the Arghandab Valley since December. The unit is part of the 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.
Kandahar is the strategic prize in southern Afghanistan, and control of the city could prove decisive in the nine-year-old war.
Thousands more U.S. troops are pouring into nearby Kandahar air field in preparation for the operation, dubbed “Hamkari” or “Cooperation,” but officials say it will be unlike the Marjah offensive launched by U.S. Marines and British forces in Helmand province three months ago.
Instead of a massive sweep to dislodge Taliban and criminal gangs, U.S. and Canadian troops are expected to do most of the fighting outside the city, while Afghan police work to control urban districts. NATO officials also say they intend to implement measures aimed at political reform that will make local government more effective.
Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of international forces in southern Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters last week that 500 to 1,000 insurgents are believed to operate in an area stretching from the Arghandab valley through Zhari and Panjwayi districts on Kandahar’s western outskirts.
These are the most contested zones of Kandahar province, which is believed to have a population of around 900,000 people.
Within the city of Kandahar, the problem is not so much one of having to battle Taliban fighters as it is reining in private security companies, militias and criminal gangs, Carter said.
In addition, Kabul will send more civil servants to work in the city, and district councils, or “shuras,” will be set up with community leaders with the goal of building more a representative government “from the bottom up,” Carter said.
The general predicted that Kandahar residents would see better security by the beginning of Ramadan, which begins around August 11.
But even as the broad outlines of the coming operation come into focus, the war for the soldiers in the western Arghandab Valley remains a grinding struggle against an enemy that prefers to slowly bleed coalition ranks with bombs and booby traps rather than face them in a stand-up fight.
Stiff resistance was expected as more than 100 U.S. and Canadian soldiers, along with Afghan troops and police swept in by Chinook helicopter and landed outside the village before dawn on May 21. That fight never materialized.
But teams of soldiers clearing orchards around the village soon encountered a nightmare of landmines, tripwires and booby-trapped bombs. At least six sites were found, some with multiple bombs. They also discovered stashes of ammonium nitrate and other explosive compounds.
Neither the soldiers nor the Afghan police took anyone into custody. Some expressed frustration with trying to fight an enemy that blended like ghosts into the local populace.
“They’re kicking our ass out here,” one soldier said.
“No, they’re not,” replied 1st Sgt. Donald McAllister, Company B’s top enlisted man. “You’re kicking their ass. What you’re doing out here is [messing] up their freedom of movement in this [area of operations]. You’re winning this fight.”
For these soldiers, most of whom are in their early 20s, success is measured not in terms of enemy killed, but in terms of ground cleared and bombs found — one day, one village, one orchard at a time.
Each discovery means that someone is less likely to go home wounded or dead.
Leatherwood and Esco estimated they have found at least 20 bombs.
Earlier, a soldier stepped on a mine in a compound set in an orchard just across a narrow canal. The mine failed to detonate completely. If it had gone off, the explosion would have set off a daisy-chained array of mines and explosives that would have probably killed an entire squad.
The Air Force bomb experts cleared the area and wired the devices for destruction. One estimated the blast would level the orchard. Spc. Daniel Johnson did not care.
“I want that orchard to collapse into hell,” he said. “Just like in the movies, to collapse into the abyss of hell and never be an orchard again.”
The soldiers talked about how much they hated the Arghandab as they waited for the Air Force team to finish.
“This is the worst place on Earth,” Adams said.