ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
A brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, some 4,000 soldiers, is patrolling west of Kandahar City in Afghanistan. They've been assigned perhaps the critical mission for the U.S. military: to create an ever-widening patch of territory where the Taliban cannot operate.
NPR's Tom Bowman is with one unit from the 101st, Alpha Company. They've been pursuing Taliban fighters and pushing them from their safe havens. But the Taliban are not giving up easily.
Just a few days ago, a suicide bomber killed two soldiers from Alpha Company and wounded three others. Tom Bowman has the story.
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) moped or motorcycle (unintelligible) when you get up to that intersection.
TOM BOWMAN: The words moped, motorcycle squawk over the radio. The soldiers of Alpha Company are haunted by them. They keep a close eye on the ones that dart along dirt trails or zip along Highway 1.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
BOWMAN: That's because that suicide bomber rode up on a motorcycle and killed their friends.
Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).
BOWMAN: So the high-pitched whine of the engine always gets the attention of Sergeant Thomas Humphrey.
Sergeant THOMAS HUMPHREY (United States Army): Thats a big fear right now across our company right now is the suicide bombers. And we try to avoid heavy-populated areas where theres a lot of vehicle traffic as much as possible.
BOWMAN: Sergeant Humphrey is leading his men on a patrol through a bazaar. It's in a small village called Sangeray, about six miles west of Kandahar City.
It was on a patrol just like this one last week when it happened. The men were ready to cross a highway when a man on a motorcycle pulled alongside the patrol. He was wearing a suicide vest.
Captain NICK STOUT (United States Army): And the guy was right on us and detonated himself.
BOWMAN: Captain Nick Stout is Alpha Company commander.
Capt. STOUT: Blew the motorcycle and himself up. We had two soldiers that were KIA as a result of it: Jonathan Curtis and Andrew Meari. And we had several other soldiers that injured as a result of the attack.
BOWMAN: The motorcycle - that was just the beginning of the attack. Suddenly, the village of Sangeray erupted in gunfire from dozens of Taliban fighters.
Capt. STOUT: They were ranged everywhere from the bazaar to the rooftops in Sangeray to the rural compounds out here in the fields. There were bullets flying everywhere.
BOWMAN: The Taliban fired for a half hour at the American combat outpost.
Capt. STOUT: It was absolutely unbelievable. And it wasnt just surprising to us; it caught everybody off guard. People were all over the bazaar; people were all over the highway. People were injured as a result of it.
BOWMAN: Surprising because Stout says they were making inroads with the villagers, as his troops began pushing out the Taliban. Villagers were offering tips on the locations of weapons caches and roadside bombs. The Americans started paying them, hundreds of them, for odd jobs at five and a half dollars a day.
Now, after the suicide attack, combat leaders like Sergeant Humphrey worry how the troops will treat the villagers. As he leads this patrol, he wonders: Will the soldiers see the villagers as complicit in the attacks?
Sgt. HUMPHREY: I feel that some people are going to treat the locals differently. But, you know, it's - thats where the leadership comes into play and keeps the soldiers under control.
BOWMAN: When you say differently, what do you mean?
Sgt. HUMPHREY: I mean, they know it was a local that blew up two of their buddies and killed them. So they're just going to not really go off on a spree, so to speak. Theyre definitely going to be treating the people differently.
BOWMAN: There's good reason for suspicion. Army officers say one of the villagers was hiding weapons and ammunition in the ceiling of his house. He was among those being paid by the Americans for day work.
And the Americans believe that even a tribal leader, Haji Lalai, was aware of the attack. They're still gathering evidence against him.
(Soundbite of gear clicking)
BOWMAN: Sergeant Humphrey's patrol comes to an end. Back at the base, the soldiers peel off their helmets and body armor and pull the clips from their weapons. Before long, they're sharing a smoke. One of them stubs out his cigarette and talks about the villagers down the hill.
Specialist ROBERT CRISS (United States Army): I dont trust anyone out there.
BOWMAN: That's Specialist Robert Criss. He's on his first deployment here.
Specialist CRISS: They just seem really shady all the time. I mean, they stare at us the entire time were going down there. You know, they ducked around corners and peak out at us.
BOWMAN: Criss walks back through the outpost alone. Of the soldiers killed by the motorcycle bomb, Private First Class Andrew Meari, was his closest friend.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar, Afghanistan.