For The U.S., Cat And Mouse In Taliban Heartland Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division have deployed to Afghanistan's Kandahar province in a U.S.-led operation to thwart the Taliban. For one unit at Combat Outpost Ashoque, it is a dangerous routine of responding to hit-and-run Taliban attacks in the fields and huts of the Afghan farmland.
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For The U.S., Cat And Mouse In Taliban Heartland

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For The U.S., Cat And Mouse In Taliban Heartland

For The U.S., Cat And Mouse In Taliban Heartland

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour in Afghanistan. Combat Outpost Ashoque sits right in the middle of the Taliban heartland, not far from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. It's where the Taliban live, and where they plan their attacks.

Now, American troops from the 101st Airborne Division are living there, too, in a spartan outpost that's little more than a concrete building surrounded by sandbags and razor wire.

NPR's Tom Bowman was with the troops at the compound yesterday when it once again came under Taliban attack.

TOM BOWMAN: The soldiers at Camp Ashoque joke that gunfire from Taliban AK-47s is their alarm clock. Sure enough, just after 8 a.m., the alarm goes off.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BOWMAN: Soldiers jump from their cots and race outside, many wearing shorts and flip-flops, together with their helmets and weapons.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BOWMAN: Bullets rip into the sandbags of the guard tower, kicking up puffs of sand. One bullet tears through the plywood covering a window in the command post, biting a chip from the concrete wall.

The bullet just misses Captain Dan Luckett's head. He holds a spent AK round, as curved now as a talon.

Captain DAN LUCKETT (U.S. 101st Airborne Division): This is my round because this one had Captain Luckett written all over it.

BOWMAN: A round that exploded with a shower of splinters.

Capt. LUCKETT: I've got pieces of wood from that (bleep) thing down my shirt.

BOWMAN: Outside, under a camouflage canopy, the soldiers run about. Some climb ladders into the guard towers. Others are on radios, calling for support.

Suddenly, a Kiowa attack helicopter sweeps low overhead. It fires a rocket toward the Taliban, leaving a rush of air and a trail of smoke.

(Soundbite of rockets)

(Soundbite of cheering)

BOWMAN: There's no time for cheering. The Taliban are still shooting. The Americans keep firing, too - heavy machine guns, grenade launchers.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BOWMAN: After about 20 minutes of this, the skirmish is over, which means it's time to go out and find any evidence of the enemy. A sergeant orders the men to put on their gear.

Unidentified Man #1: You guys just sitting around, get into ACUs. You guys are going to have to go push out and do something crazy.

BOWMAN: Push out on patrol, into that tangle of grapevines where the Taliban like to shoot and hide. Captain Brant Auge leads the patrol. He's a West Point graduate from Mississippi.

Captain BRANT AUGE (U.S. 101st Airborne Division): We will go to where we saw people before, but with the trench lines, all they do is keep their head down and move, and you can't see them. They're probably going to be gone by the time we get there.

BOWMAN: They sidestep the coils of razor wire that protect the entrance to the outpost, and trudge down a dirt road just as two farmers amble toward them. them.

Capt. AUGE: Did you see anybody that was in the fields?

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) I did not - saw anybody on there.

Capt. AUGE: Nobody saw anybody, huh?

BOWMAN: Captain Auge hears that often. Villagers are wary of the Americans.

The soldiers turn from the road and descend into the field. They're soon swallowed by the vines. Only their helmets can be seen, bobbing up and down like turtles.

They trudge toward a grape hut, about a quarter-mile into the field. Farmers once used it to store their harvest. Now, it's something of a Taliban fort. There's talk the huts are ringed by land mines. Even the farmers now stay away from them. So Lieutenant Clay Hammer tells the captain they should be careful.

Capt. AUGE: What's that?

Lieutenant CLAY HAMMER (U.S. 101st Airborne Division): How close should we get to it?

Capt. AUGE: I reckon pretty damn close.

Lt. HAMMER: I walked right up the ones on - down at grape hut one and two, which are a lot worse than this one.

BOWMAN: Captain Auge wants to look inside the grape hut for any evidence of the attack - wounded or dead Taliban, a trail of blood, or at least some shell casings.

As they near the grape hut, the patrol wades through an irrigation ditch.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

BOWMAN: The grape hut is one story tall and made of adobe, with small windows. It's as worn as a sand castle, and pockmarked with holes from that helicopter's missiles. Captain Auge pokes his head inside.

Capt. AUGE: Let me look through the window, to see if we see any shell casings.

BOWMAN: But inside, there's only hay, no sign of any Taliban. Lieutenant Hammer stands back a bit.

Lt. HAMMER: So, that's pretty normal. I don't know what it is. I don't know if they pick it up or what, but I have no idea. It makes no sense.

Unidentified Man: ...100 meters away.

BOWMAN: Do you think they just pick up the evidence and take off with it?

Lt. HAMMER: No. I think they take the bodies with them, but they're not going to pick up shell casings or anything like that. So if we haven't found it, that just tells me that we haven't identified the actual location they were firing from.

BOWMAN: There have been about nine such attacks in the past six weeks, and it's usually the same drill. The Taliban use the grapevines and the mud walls as a way to blunt the Americans' sophisticated surveillance and weaponry.

Capt. AUGE: As soon as they start taking fire, they can get down behind these walls. Then you see - you can move all the way from here down to the wadi(ph) line and never be seen.

BOWMAN: And sure enough, after nearly two hours of patrolling, there's nothing to be seen. So Auge and his men start to head back, grunting as they climb over the six-foot grapefield walls.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

BOWMAN: The grapevines finally come to an end and open to a soft, plowed field. The guard tower of their compound is in sight. Captain Auge knows there will be more Taliban attacks.

Capt. AUGE: Yeah. What they want to do is make us scared to come out - you know, to where we don't leave the compound.

BOWMAN: But the Americans continue to leave the compound on patrols. And for the most part, the Taliban continue to slip away.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: As Tom reported, no one was injured in that attack on the combat outpost.

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