Friend Or Foe? In Afghanistan, The Picture Is Unclear : The Picture Show For U.S. forces in Afghanistan, removing the Taliban from its epicenter is a slow and steady struggle.

Friend Or Foe? In Afghanistan, The Picture Is Unclear

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Obama administration placed sanctions on several Taliban leaders this week, freezing their assets and banning them from travel. This is aimed at stopping them from directing and funding efforts against U.S. and coalition forces who are fighting in Afghanistan but come across from safe havens in Pakistan.

NPR photographer David Gilkey joins us now in our studios. He recently returned from a seven-week trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with the 101st Airborne outside of Kandahar City.

David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID GILKEY: Thank you.

SIMON: And a very powerful piece that you have produced for our website. This area is the birthplace of the Taliban, isn't it?

GILKEY: Specifically, where the 101st is. Its the backyard, the neighborhood where it all started.

SIMON: One of the things they talk about in your piece is that they will talk to people who they certainly have reason to think are actual Taliban fighters. They just happen not to be armed at that moment.

KESTENBAUM: That's the essence of sort of a guerilla warfare, is you dont know - you cannot separate friend from foe. You can be talking to a guy who is picking grapes in one of the grape fields one moment and five minutes later, he can be shooting from behind a tree at you. You just dont know who is who.

SIMON: What's the terrain like?

GILKEY: Unbelievable. Imagine - you know, most people have been in a grape vineyard - trellises where the grapes are strung up every year, and they go along the wires. These are sort of hundred-year-old, 6- to 8-foot piles of mud that the grapes grow out of. And so they, to navigate this terrain is utterly impossible. To go 100 yards could take an hour.

SIMON: And we should explain that these are kind of mud embankments and slippery, treacherous places that a U.S. soldier in the 101st Airborne has to navigate with - I forget how heavy the packs are at this point, but that and a bullet-proof vest, and everything else that a modern soldier carries.

GILKEY: Absolutely. And the thing is, is they dont - they cannot walk on any path. Period. If from point A to point B, the easiest way to do it is to take a path, you can't do that. So you end up walking through the creeks; you end up climbing over 100 mud walls to get to somewhere that would've taken you 10 minutes to walk through if you could walk on the path. Because everything, if it looks easy to walk there...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

GILKEY: means there's a mine there.

SIMON: So how do you take photographs and record audio?

GILKEY: At the same time?

SIMON: Yeah.

GILKEY: We are required to wear the same protective gear that they are. That means a bullet-proof vest and a helmet. I've devised a little holder that Velcros onto my helmet. Any time we're out walking around, I am recording everything that's going on, on my head.

SIMON: I think the moment of your presentation that's on our website that will get to a lot of people, in particular, is when there's a soldier who says to you, you can imagine doing this for a day; you can imagine doing it for a week. But a year? And a year is exactly their mission.

GILKEY: Right. I was with these guys two weeks and every day, we did two to three patrols. Most of them, we came under fire. Some of the fire is some of the intensest gun fighting that I've seen in Afghanistan - or Iraq for that matter, to the point when my embed was up - usually you could stay a little longer. In this particular case, I felt like, okay, I think we have enough. But I think there's a totally different mindset for them. It's a long time.

SIMON: I think all soldiers think that they might have one, two or three lucky breaks coming, but that kind of intensity over a year - you wonder if you dont run out of luck.

GILKEY: Right. I go back and forth between Afghanistan every year. I went to Iraq every year, and it was always the question amongst - sort of the journalists, I think, was when you leave, do the dice reload? Or are you just stacking up bad karma? And I dont have an answer to that.

SIMON: David, thanks so much.

GILKEY: Thank you.

SIMON: NPR's David Gilkey. And you can see his audio slide show, photos of the 101st Airborne engaged in their mission in Afghanistan, at our website,

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