Taliban command of Afghan terrain makes fighting conditions difficult

First Lt. Ashton Ballesteros, 24, of Grayson, Ga., with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, jumps over an irrigation ditch while on patrol near Zangabad.


By DREW BROWN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 10, 2009

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Related story: 2nd Platoon soldiers survive harrowing Taliban ambush

ZANGABAD, Afghanistan — Two companies of American soldiers accompanied Canadian forces on a recent four-day operation into Kandahar province’s Panjwayi district, where some of the sharpest fighting has occurred against the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan.

The American mission was to help secure a narrow dirt track that led to the village of Mushan, about 10 kilometers to the west, where the Canadians would tear down a small outpost that had been occupied since late 2006 by eight Canadian advisers and 60 Afghan soldiers.

According to U.S. and Canadian officers, the small force had not been able to do much to counter the Taliban in the area. The fort had been under frequent attack. So the troops would be pulled out as part of a new NATO strategy to reposition forces around Kandahar and other major population centers in southern Afghanistan.

By early afternoon on the third day, the mission was almost complete. The engineers had finished their work, and the armored column of more than 400 Canadians, 200 Americans and 100 Afghans was beginning to move out.

Then a Taliban bomb struck a Canadian tank, wounding two soldiers and putting the tank out of action.

There was no way for the rest of the convoy to move around the wreckage. The high-walled compounds and deeply trenched opium and wheat fields along the road gave almost no room to maneuver. With most of the column bottled up behind the disabled tank, the convoy was stalled for most of another day as recovery specialists worked to extract the vehicle.

"It’s amazing that 10 dudes with shovels can stop a whole battalion," said Capt. Chris Brawley, commander of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, commenting on how a single Taliban bomb had brought the convoy to a halt.

The column moved safely out of the area the next morning. Soldiers with Company A engaged in three firefights, but suffered no casualties. A soldier from Company D had been slightly injured in a blast, one of several bombs that had either exploded or been found along the route.

By any measure, the mission had been a success, but it bore out a fundamental challenge that U.S. and other NATO forces face in southern Afghanistan: While western troops have the technology, the Taliban own the terrain.

Although U.S. and NATO troops enjoy the edge over the Taliban in almost every respect — superior weapons, communications gear, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and air support by fighters, bombers, helicopters and unmanned drones — those tactical advantages are often offset by terrain that favors guerrilla tactics and a lightly armed, highly maneuverable enemy.

"The fighting conditions here are amazingly difficult," said Brawley, 28, of Ellington, Mo. "The enemy pretty much has free rein down here, and there’s just endless places to hide."

Another complicating factor in the Mushan operation was that "there’s only one way in, and there’s one way out," said Brawley, allowing the Taliban to detonate bombs along the route that were probably buried weeks and months ago.

Panjwayi district lies about 40 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital of Kandahar and has long been considered a Taliban stronghold. During Operation Medusa in 2006, Canadian and other NATO forces fought one of the bloodiest battles so far of the eight-year-old Afghan war in Panjwayi and nearby Zhari district.

The area is heavily cultivated with wheat, grapes, opium, marijuana and other crops. The fields are partitioned by thick mud walls, and irrigation ditches crisscross the landscape like a maze. A group of soldiers on patrol in a grape field can suddenly drop six to 10 feet into a series of trenches in which an enemy can move undetected.

Rows of open slats in the two-story structures the soldiers refer to as "grape huts" offer the Taliban ready-made firing ports that they use to fire on NATO forces from concealed positions. The thick mud walls of the buildings can withstand multiple hits from all but the heaviest ordnance.

"[The enemy] definitely has the advantage down here," said Company A 1st Sgt. Christopher Kowalewski, 36, of Chicago. "[Despite] all of the technology that we have — all of our helicopters — he still has the advantage down here."

Soldiers from Company A engaged in three gunbattles with Taliban fighters over a two-day period during the Mushan operation. An estimated 10 fighters ambushed about 30 soldiers on the first day, keeping them pinned down for about two hours. The firefight ended only after American troops called for mortar and artillery fire, support from Kiowa helicopter gunships and, finally, an airstrike.

At one point, the Taliban were firing on the Americans from three sides. First Lt. Ashton Ballesteros, of 3 Delta platoon, said Canadian troops familiar with Taliban tactics in the area had told him the fighters typically "cloverleaf" around NATO forces during a fight, probing for weak spots.

"That’s exactly what they were trying to do to us," said Ballesteros, 24, of Grayson, Ga.

U.S. mortar teams fired more than 30 rounds of 60 mm high explosives and nearly 30 rounds of white-phosphorous smoke, according to Staff Sgt. Jason Calman, 27, of Las Vegas. Fire batteries at a nearby Canadian camp fired nearly 30 rounds of high-explosive 155 mm artillery rounds and another 18 rounds of white-phosphorous smoke. A NATO jet dropped a 500-pound bomb.

The soldiers used the smoke to cover their retreat. They made their way back to their patrol base through fields of wheat, opium and grapes, the latter with trenches that were deeper than the soldiers were tall.

"You could sit out an artillery barrage in this stuff and probably survive everything but a direct hit," one soldier said during a short rest break.

A second gunbattle broke out a couple of kilometers to the south when 2nd Platoon of Company A was ambushed by another group of Taliban fighters. The platoon was hit for a second time the next day not more than 100 meters from its patrol base.

An Afghan man with a child was spotted several times at various points during the second day’s action. The soldiers believed the man was acting as spotter for the Taliban and using the child as a shield.

"They know we’re not going to shoot him when he’s with a kid," said 1st Lt. Jared Wagner, 25, of Hillsborough, N.J. "It’s frustrating."

With so much Taliban activity around Zangabad and Mushan, Brawley predicted that NATO forces would have to "retake this whole area" at some point.

With Canadian forces scaling back their presence in Panjwayi and with more American forces coming into the south, that job will very likely fall to U.S. troops.

For more photos, see the link at the top of the story.

Staff Sgt. Richard Guynes, 28, of Newman, Calif. looks for enemy fighters during a two-hour battle between soldiers of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment and Taliban insurgents near Zangabad.