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Thousands of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne are taking part in what the military is calling the last major combat offensive of the Afghan War. Their mission: clear Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold. It's a key prize, because it straddles both the major road to Kabul and insurgent supply routes into Pakistan.
NPR's Tom Bowman has this report from Ghazni.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The first casualty happened before the mission even started. An Afghan army soldier - his name is Burhan Muddin - was standing watch at his combat outpost. A Taliban gunman slipped out of a crowd and opened fire. A single bullet pierced the Afghan soldier's chest.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
BOWMAN: Three Afghan soldiers rushed him to a nearby American base, then struggled to carry him into a medical station. Doctors and nurses worked furiously, but couldn't save him.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And now he's dead.
BOWMAN: Burhan Muddin was just 25. His body was carefully wrapped in a white sheet and placed in an ambulance.
His fellow soldiers embraced the Americans and wept. Hours later, in the dead of night, some of these same soldiers were ready for the mission: an assault, along with the Americans, on a village in Ghazni province. It's a Taliban stronghold called Baghi Kale, just 10 minutes away by helicopter.
A long line of soldiers from the ANA, or Afghan National Army, comes bobbing along in the pitch black. The occasional flashlight illuminates their dark eyes and bearded faces. They're eager to avenge their friend.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) If I get any bad guy over there, I will kill him, because they killed one of our guys.
BOWMAN: But it's about more than revenge. Why this mission, in this place? Because the Taliban hold sway in Ghazni province. They've killed dozens of Afghan troops. They lob mortars and rockets into the small American outposts. They intimidate the people in villages like Baghi Kale.
Just before getting on his helicopter for that night mission, Captain Jared Larpenteur, Delta Company's commander, stood in front of a map and described the challenge posed by the Taliban.
CAPTAIN JARED LARPENTEUR: They're coming from Pakistan and the Paktika Province with their men, weapons, and equipment to cross the pass. There's a lot of safe havens in here that they're using to stage and move their logistical supplies north and south.
BOWMAN: North to Kabul and south to Kandahar along Highway One, the country's only main road. That's why Ghazni is so important: It straddles the Taliban supply lines. But when the Americans sent thousands more troops to Afghanistan, they didn't come here until now.
Before the Americans arrived, just a couple months ago, security was handled by a Polish brigade. But the Poles, says Captain Larpenteur, only served as something of a highway patrol.
LARPENTEUR: The Polish mostly, when they were here, stayed on Highway One and never really got off Highway One into the villages at all. The villages haven't seen any type of ANA or U.S. forces in over five years. I mean, we went to one village out here, and they thought we were Russians.
BOWMAN: It's in these villages that the Taliban stockpile their weapons and bomb making materials. Each time Captain Larpenteur and his men head out, they're met with gunfire, or come across roadside bombs. Seven soldiers from his brigade already have been killed. Many others have been wounded.
And this night, they're expecting to go up against the Taliban again.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)
BOWMAN: Massive helicopters lift off in the darkness, stuffed with Delta Company's soldiers and their Afghan partners. Minutes later, they land in a field and pour out into the swirling dust.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (unintelligible) Spread it out. Spread it out.
BOWMAN: The soldiers regroup, and for the next hour move quietly toward the village of Baghi Kale.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Three meals. I'm guessing we're picking up. I don't know.
BOWMAN: Arriving just as the eastern sky begins to glow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BOWMAN: The soldiers walk through the mud-walled village, single-file on each side of the dirt road. Village men, most of them over 50,, emerge from their compounds. They watch the intruders, standing and staring.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BARKING DOG)
BOWMAN: The soldiers question some of the men. One of them talks about how the Taliban infiltrate the village. They slip in on motorcycles or come in at night in small groups, he says. They ask for food, a place to stay. They take over the mosque and broadcast a warning.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Whenever the Taliban come in here, in this village, they're calling in the loud-speaker of the mosque: If anybody talks of the ANA guys or American guys, I can cut your head.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
BOWMAN: The mission continues. The soldiers fan out. The Americans instruct the Afghan soldiers to search a mosque. Only the Afghans are permitted to enter.
LARPENTEUR: First Sergeant, you tracking what they found over there?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: They got RPGs and stuff in the mosque on the other side.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Nice.
BOWMAN: RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades hidden in a wall. Along with bomb-making components inside a coffin, and rifles and radios. It's all gathered together in a pile and destroyed with American explosives.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
BOWMAN: Another cache is found and piled up.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
BOWMAN: Fourteen hours later, the mission is over. There were no Taliban. Still, one Afghan sergeant, Enayat Halakeyar, is pleased.
SERGEANT ENAYAT HALAKEYAR. AFGHAN ARMY: (Through Translator) We came during the night. That was so good. We found a lot of things and blew up two, three IEDs. That was so good. We are so happy.
BOWMAN: It's been one more day in the war in Afghanistan. One village searched. One in a countless number spread across Ghazni Province and the country. The Afghan and American soldiers head back to base under a blazing sun. There are no helicopters now. They'll trudge the five miles through fields and villages.
They worry the Taliban is watching. Most patrols come under fire when they leave a village.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...love you guys.
BOWMAN: But they make it back safely to their base. It's rimmed with razor wire, sandbagged walls and guard towers. These soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will spend another four months in this same routine: Go out on patrol, then head back to their outposts. But they don't have much time to clear this Taliban stronghold. The officer in charge is Colonel Mark Stock. He sits in his office in a long, plywood building at a base called Warrior.
COLONEL MARK STOCK: And at the end of the day it's not going to be our success. It's going to be the Afghans' success.
BOWMAN: When he leaves in September, a smaller American combat unit will replace his soldiers, along with training teams to help the struggling Afghan forces.
STOCK: What keeps me up at night is how we transition this, and part of that transition is us backing off, enabling our partners to do it without us, and still be successful.
BOWMAN: Across a dirt road from the colonel's headquarters sit the remains of an old British fort. It's 20-foot walls worn like a sandcastle at the beach. The fortress dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, another time when other English-speaking soldiers tried to make a difference in Afghanistan.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.