On U.S. Hunt, Taliban Always Watching
April 8, 2007
BAYLOUGH BOWL, Afghanistan -- Rarely do the insurgents take on American troops -- few but formidable -- in the Baylough Bowl. But in a gray world where allegiances are fluid and identities are closely guarded, the Taliban are always watching and waiting.
No sooner does a patrol leave its primitive mud fort on foot or wheels than the chatter on Taliban frequencies begins: ''The Americans have just left. They're coming this way. We will need more reinforcements if they approach any closer ...''
''They're probably looking at us right now from one of those peaks,'' says Abdul Farid, an Afghan interpreter and radio monitor as he leaves Forward Operating Base Baylough (rhymes with buy low) in the southeastern province of Zabul.
These almost daily patrols are the staple of U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, coping with a rekindled Islamic insurgency more than five years after the Taliban regime fell to American and Afghan forces.
What all this expenditure of sweat, and sometimes blood, will do to win the war is difficult to gauge.
1st Lt. Jason Cunningham, who has logged more than 180 miles on foot over the past three months, explains the purpose of being on the ground, face-to-face with villagers: to keep the Taliban at bay, establish authority, and enable troops to take the local pulse and dispense aid to gain converts where loyalties are questionable and violence sometimes erupts.
''It's very possible that I've had tea with the Taliban,'' says Cunningham, who commands 50 U.S. Army soldiers.
At one stop, the soldiers and a party of Afghan police inspect a roadside bomb, a mortar round attached to a trip wire. It's hidden among rocks at the base of a pole flying the Afghan national flag.
It's the fifth such device planted in the immediate area of the Daychopan district seat; the last killed a passing girl and a dozen sheep, says the police commander, Bashir Ahmad Frozan.
The next day the 14-man unit -- a platoon of B Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment -- launches a 9-mile patrol which eight hours later leaves the legs of even the superbly fit soldiers weak and rubbery.
The troops push through the basin, which measures some 6 by 8 miles -- part moonscape of soaring rock piles, part idyll of blossoming almond orchards and grazing lambs, all girded by mountains capped with the remnants of winter's snows.
The patrol stops villagers as they head to fields or the bazaar on donkeys or old motorcycles. The Afghans seem bored by the routine searches, raising their hands high with little prompting. Some checks turn farcical.
''Ask the guy why he's jumping around,'' a suspicious soldier tells the interpreter as he slides his hands up and down a farmer's pants. ''He thinks you are gay,'' the smiling interpreter responds.
The turnaround point is Sinan, a hamlet of low-walled compounds, each looking like a little medieval fortress of mud that seems as one with the dun earth. Children and veiled women peer from behind heavy, timbered doors.
''It's sort of a gray village. They're friendly to us when we are here and when we leave the Taliban moves in,'' says Staff Sgt. Lukas Hearn, resting against a compound wall in the heart of the settlement. ''Because the Taliban have the guns and knives,'' Cunningham interjects.
Cunningham, from San Francisco, has delved into this world of fluid allegiances.
During visits to two powerful local figures, who like others in Afghanistan make their accommodations with all sides, Cunningham is almost certain he mixed with Taliban fighters, but never felt threatened.
The two elders had guaranteed his safety, so any harm done to him would violate Pashtunwali, the traditional code of the dominant Pashtun tribe in Zabul and the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
On the patrol's return leg, six soldiers are ordered to set up an observation post. It's a heart-pounding clamber up a boulder-strewn cliff at 9,000 feet altitude, with each man carrying as much as 100 pounds of gear.
''Everybody in the bowl knows we're up here,'' says Hearn, of Moore, Okla., moments after his team begins to scan a vast, 180-degree panorama through sniper rifle scopes and binoculars.
Sometimes the Taliban -- ''dudes dressed in black carrying AK-47s'' -- can be spotted from such heights, the soldiers say. But it's not easy to pinpoint them among the sea of rocks or mingling with the villagers in the fields and hamlets far below.
Most of the Taliban and foreign infiltrators, coming from Pakistan which borders Zabul, trek along distant ridges, skirting the bowl to reach their stronghold outside it, Hearn says. Even if they're seen, ''they all can run faster than we can,'' he says.
Spc. Torrey Gray is called down from the hilltop. A woman nearby has given birth and is hemorrhaging, suffering severe pain and low blood pressure. Her family wants American help.
The medic, from Bangor, Maine, administers an intravenous injection, antibiotics and painkillers and receives thanks.
''It shows that we have genuine concern for the people in this area, that we're not just here to deter the Taliban, that we're not just putting up a facade,'' Gray says.
But an hour earlier, the patrol had searched the same family compound where the woman gave birth. They had found a spent shotgun shell just outside. It was an unwelcome intrusion into the inner sanctum of the conservative Muslims.
Perhaps the patrol had scored a draw in the seesaw battle for loyalties in the Baylough Bowl.