STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's get an unfiltered look now at the war in Afghanistan. U.S. troops surged into southern Afghanistan last summer, pushing into Taliban territory and setting off fierce fighting. The region is called the Arghandab River Valley, and there American soldiers have faced Taliban snipers as well as landmines and booby-traps. The fighting has claimed hundreds of American and Afghan lives.
Civilians fled the area and some villages were so completely wired with bombs that the U.S. military razed them to the ground. We've heard reports about this from the military and from journalists traveling with the military, but today we have a report from NPR's Quil Lawrence, who visited the area without an American military escort.
QUIL LAWRENCE: This summer, U.S. troops in Arghandab had to unlearn one of their most basic instincts. When they took fire, they had to remember not to hit the dirt for cover. Arghandab was so full of homemade land mines - what the military calls IEDs - that lying down on the ground was more dangerous than standing up amid the bullets.
But Arghandab went quiet a couple of months ago, either because the U.S. troop surge finally drove the Taliban out or because the Taliban left, as the dense foliage they used as cover fell away for the winter.
Whichever the reason, Afghan police officer Khan Muhammad considered it safe enough to go home. When a journalist proposed driving to the village of Tarook Kalacha, he jumped at the chance to visit the house he hadn't seen for two years - or what's left of the house.
Mr. KHAN MUHAMMAD (Afghan Police Officer): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: A few months ago, Khan Muhammad says, the Americans decided that Tarook Kalacha was so completely wired with bombs that the only way to save the village was to demolish it with airstrikes.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: The policeman says he hasn't had a chance to claim any compensation for his damaged house because the Americans insist he must come to the village to get it. He was too busy working to go and also too afraid. Passing through the orchards, it's not hard to see why.
Khan Muhammad points out places along the road where bombs were defused, or where they claimed the lives of comrades, or where he himself was wounded. The low mud walls that Afghans use as grape arbors make perfect cover for snipers. When leaves and fruit cover the trees, the road may as well be a tunnel, a blind for a small army hiding in the orchard.
Khan Muhammad says it's not dangerous now, but he still asked five fellow cops to come along.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: He quotes the Pashtun proverb: Even if your enemy is a jackal, prepare as if he were a lion.
But it looks like the Taliban fighters are gone, and the villagers are starting to pick up the pieces.
(Soundbite of sawing)
LAWRENCE: Half a mile outside Tarook Kalacha, a group of men use a two-man handsaw to make firewood out of a toppled mulberry tree that looks a hundred years old. American choppers fly high over what was an orchard and is now a dusty vacant lot.
Mr. HAJJI ROZI MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Hajji Rozi Muhammad, the white-haired landowner, says there were 200 pomegranate trees here until the Americans bombed and bulldozed the orchard.
Mr. HAJJI ROZI MUHAMMAD: (Through translator) (Unintelligible) there were mines, these IEDs. They told me there were IEDs.
LAWRENCE: It's clear this was a battlefield. Hajji Rozi points to bullet and shrapnel scars on the surviving trees. His house in Tarook Kalacha was also destroyed. In fact, the Americans have built a base right on top of where it sat, he says.
Mr. HAJJI ROZI MUHAMMAD: (Through translator) Of course I'm very disappointed and very angry. This was the income of my family. We were just feeding our kids with that, our family with that.
LAWRENCE: Hajji Rozi says he's not sure if the Americans had to bomb the area. He thinks with all America's technology there must have been a way to remove the bombs without flattening the orchard. He's not sure whether he should blame the Americans or the Taliban for the destruction.
(Soundbite of door closing)
LAWRENCE: Hajji Rozi gets in the car with the policeman and drives a short distance to what used to be a hamlet of 30 or 40 houses, Tarook Kalacha. It's a vast empty lot full of dust as dry as talcum powder. U.S. soldiers have built a small fort in the middle of it.
(Soundbite of construction)
LAWRENCE: But reconstruction is under way. Masons are building the stone foundation for a new mosque. And the American army captain in charge of reconstruction, Pat McGuigan, has stepped off the base to check in with the landowners.
You were here when the village was demolished as well?
Captain PAT MCGUIGAN (U.S. Army): Yeah. Well, it was cleared of IEDs, is how -is what happened. It was an HME producing - IED factories and mass production of HME going on in this village.
LAWRENCE: HME is homemade explosives.
McGuigan says the whole point was to make it safe for Afghans to return to this village and work the orchards again.
A lot of these guys are saying that they kind of wished that instead of basically dozing the village, you could have removed the bombs from the houses.
Capt. MCGUIGAN: Oh, we tried that. I mean, the first option was not dropping bombs. That is not course of action one. It was - we tried to get down into the village. Every time we would get about 400 meters north of here and be - and met by a colossal barrage of fire from the Taliban, or we would step on an IED and a soldier would lose his legs or his life.
LAWRENCE: The captain says the village elders couldn't go home either. Now many are back to meet McGuigan with hand-drawn plans to rebuild their houses based on aerial photos the Army gave them.
Capt. MCGUIGAN: Hamid(ph), do you have your plan, your engineer design for the houses, or no?
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: McGuigan says fair compensation will be paid for the houses, the lost fruit harvest, and the rent for the land that the base is on now. No one here has claimed that any civilians died in the bombing. Everyone had already fled the fighting.
Captain McGuigan says the village elders said they would come back only if the base stays to protect them.
Capt. MCGUIGAN: They're extremely happy, extremely excited.
LAWRENCE: But the men seem more nervous than excited, perhaps shell-shocked from looking at the dust that was once their homes. Most think the Taliban will have a hard time coming back here in the spring, but they've just heard the news that the elder they put in charge of reconstruction, Dad Karim, was assassinated in Kandahar city, after many threatening letters from the Taliban.
On the way back to town, Khan Muhammad, the police officer, finally gets to see his house. With an American surveillance drone buzzing overhead, he kicks through the rubble of the house built after the Russians destroyed Tarook Kalacha in the 1980s.
He says he doesn't believe there were any bombs here, just maybe Taliban staying in the abandoned village. Standing on the ruins, Khan Muhammad says he's not sure what happens next.
Mr. KHAN MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: If the Americans rebuild this village and help us stand on our own feet, and keep the Taliban out, then they will be our good friends, he says. But, he adds, if they leave us like this for the Taliban, they are our worst enemy.
The villagers say only God knows which it's going to be.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.