ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For the past month, we've been reporting on the variety of missions U.S. troops are performing in Afghanistan, from training Afghan police to building schools to fighting the Taliban. Well, today we head to a place where Taliban fighters now hide, plan attacks and store weapons. It's called Zhari in Kandahar province. It's a wide patch of orchards, fields and villages north of the city where the Taliban movement began. Some American troops call it the heart of darkness.
NPR's Tom Bowman went on patrol with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, as they approached one of those villages, searching for the enemy who have been throwing grenades.
(Soundbite of outpost)
Unidentified Man #1: All right, take the pain there for a minute.
TOM BOWMAN: Specialist Steven Hackworth lies on a cot and grimaces in pain. A medic rotates his wrenched knee.
(Soundbite of grunt)
BOWMAN: Just before lunch, Hackworth and his soldiers were patrolling through the village of Sangeray, just down the hill from this base. Suddenly, a man poked his head around a corner and threw something at the troops.
Specialist STEVEN HACKWORTH (U.S. Army): I yelled, grenade, and turned around and dove backwards and it went off.
BOWMAN: Went off and punctured the leg of Private Dan Oswald, who lies on his stomach in a cot next to Hackworth. It's just a pinprick of a wound. His face, though, took more of a beating. It's peppered with cuts and bruises. That's because he lifted his heavy rifle, known as a SAW, to shield his eyes.
Private DAN OSWALD (U.S. Army): Yeah, I seen the grenade go off, I threw the SAW up into my face and just dove into the ditch.
BOWMAN: This was the fifth grenade attack Alpha Company had suffered in the past week. More than half a dozen soldiers have been wounded, though none seriously. Their commander, Captain Nick Stout, has had enough. He gathers his soldiers in his operations center. They're joined by local Afghan leaders and police. Captain Stout seems almost caged.
Captain NICK STOUT (U.S. Army): And I want us to walk down there. This is our chance to take action as a united front and talk to the people about this.
BOWMAN: He stabs at a map of Sangeray, taped to the wall.
Cpt. STOUT: We're going to figure out who was in this compound right here. And it's going to be an opportunity for us to stand together and say, look, what is going on around here?
BOWMAN: The mission for the day is to go after the people throwing the grenades. But there's a complication: Captain Stout can't trust the Afghan police who are supposed to be on his side. Shortly before this last grenade attack, one of Stout's soldiers spotted an Afghan police officer sneaking off to talk on his cell phone.
Cpt. STOUT: So, when we walked up, he was real quick to hide his phone and just act like nothing was going on.
BOWMAN: The Americans suspected him of double-crossing them and working for the Taliban. So they detained the cop and searched him.
Cpt. STOUT: And come to find out he had a couple cell phones on him. He had a wallet with American money, lots of American money and Pakistani money.
BOWMAN: Stout's boss, battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Davis, perks up.
Lieutenant Colonel JOHNNY DAVID (U.S. Army): How many police walk around with American $100 bills? I don't even walk around with American $100 bills.
BOWMAN: The American soldiers do trust the top Afghan political leader here. His name is Karim Jan. He's the district governor, the top leader in this area north of Kandahar city. And he's here at the operation center. The Americans had summoned him after the grenade attack.
Mr. KARIM JAN (District Governor, Zhari): (through translator) We are here to get rid of those people. So I am fighting with the Taliban face by face. Whatever has happened we should investigate that guys and look for them.
BOWMAN: And that's what the men get ready to do go after the grenade throwers. Karim Jan, the district governor, shoulders an AK-47. They all gather in front of a truck. Captain Stout opens a detailed map of Sangeray and places it on the hood.
Cpt. STOUT: All right, we've identified this compound right here as the potential focal point and where those attacks are being based out of. We're going to search some compounds, we're going to talk to some people, and if anybody's suspicious or we find anything, we're going to arrest somebody.
BOWMAN: They race on foot down a dusty path and across an asphalt highway. It looks like an international posse: Americans in helmets and body armor, Afghans holding heavy machine guns and running to keep up. Karim Jan leads the pack, angry as a bull as he charges into the marketplace. Children and shopkeepers alike are slack-jawed by the scene. As the Americans stand to the side, the district governor drags a shopkeeper out of his store. The young man has been held before on suspicion of working with the Taliban. Karim Jan orders him to get down on his knees. A translator does his best to keep up with what Karim Jan is saying.
Mr. JAN: (through translator) I'm not going to tolerate anything. If I have proof that youre working for Taliban, I'm going to burn your house and destroy you.
BOWMAN: Done with that man, Karim Jan strides down an alley, with the soldiers and police in tow, toward the compound where the grenade was thrown from. He bangs on metal doors. Young men and old alike spill into the alley. An old man with a long white beard says he heard nothing.
(Soundbite of alley)
Unidentified Man #2: He said I just came in from the garden, the field. I don't know who threw the hand grenade.
BOWMAN: Karim Jan threatens him, tugs on the man's beard and leans into his face.
Mr. JAN: (Through translator) Find out or I'm going to burn your house.
BOWMAN: The international posse turns a corner. They spot someone they suspect has ties to the Taliban. He's not from this village. They grab him.
(Soundbite of village)
Unidentified Man #3: Hey, we need handcuffs.
BOWMAN: And began to question him.
Unidentified Man #2: He said, that's my other brother. He's involved with Taliban. He's not even here. I'm innocent.
BOWMAN: No one believes the man. The Afghan police handcuff him, place a hood over his head and march him toward the village center.
There's one more place in the village to check. Lieutenant Colonel Davis and the others keep making wrong turns in this labyrinth - alleyways with sides 10 feet high.
Lt. Col. DAVIS: I mean, these compounds, like, wall after wall...
BOWMAN: They arrive at the site of another grenade attack. An elderly man and a toddler appear from behind a rusted metal door. The man admits that his older son threw the grenade that had wounded Americans a few days earlier.
Mr. JAN: (through translator) All these young kids, do they listen to you? He says, no. Do they listen to me? No, they don't listen to me.
BOWMAN: The man says he ordered his son to leave the house. Karim Jan, the district governor, lays down the law.
Mr. JAN: (through translator) You have to promise me they're not going to use your compound to throw grenade or fire any shots from your house.
BOWMAN: Finally, it's time to head back to base. It's a short walk. They climb a rocky hillside and they're there. After dinner, Captain Stout heads to the top of a guard tower they call the Crow's Nest. He looks out over Sangeray as the sun begins to set. In the soft light, the village looks peaceful. Stout says more American and Afghan soldiers will be coming in, allowing more combat outposts like this one and more patrols into the village and beyond through the thick carpet of orchards that stretches to Helmand province in the west.
Cpt. STOUT: This is absolutely necessary to win Kandahar city and to cut off their supply line from Kandahar to Helmand.
BOWMAN: But Stout knows he'll need more Afghan partners like Karim Jan, the district leader who went on patrol with him this day.
Cpt. STOUT: You know, what it takes is someone that they know, somebody's that from the area. And eventually, that tide is going to turn.
BOWMAN: That's all uncertain. But at least for this one day, Stout can point to a few victories. Karim Jan took a bold stance. A few suspects are under arrest. And one of his wounded soldiers, Steve Hackworth, made sergeant. Standing before Alpha Company, the new sergeant had a message for the troops: Watch out for grenades.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.