LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The United States launched a war in Afghanistan a decade ago to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Today that war is almost exclusively a battle against the Taliban and it grinds on. One of the recent hotspots is not far from the capital, Kabul. Near the main highway south of the city, U.S. troops have been in frequent fights with the Taliban.
The Americans have had successes, but now the trick is holding on to those gains and expanding them. NPR's Quil Lawrence and staff photographer David Gilkey recently traveled with U.S. forces in Logar Province and sent this report.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Captain David Williams commands about 140 men in Bravo Company of the 10th Mountain Division stationed at a tiny hilltop outpost in Charkh at the southern tip of Logar Province.
Kabul and the seat of the Afghan government lies about 60 miles straight up the highway, but until this winter, the tiny bazaar and surrounding orchards of Charkh were a killing field. Bravo Company lost five soldiers in a push to take that ground away from insurgents. Now Captain Williams says U.S. and Afghan forces are where they want to be.
Captain DAVID WILLIAMS (Bravo Company): We've separated, I think, the enemy from a large part of the populous. So this used to be their center and they now have to attack here from the outside.
LAWRENCE: With only two soldiers beside him, Williams walks the half-mile from his base to the village. He says this would have been suicide only weeks ago. Down at the market, shops are open and commerce seems to have returned. Williams describes the bazaar as an inkblot, an area he hopes security can expand from. In turn, Logar Province is supposed to be part of a larger expanding inkblot of security around the capital, Kabul - but that's a long way off.
Lieutenant PAUL LANKFORD (Bravo Company): They don't like us being here. They hate us in the bazaar. You know they hate us in the bazaar.
LAWRENCE: Lieutenant Paul Lankford leads Bravo Company's Third Platoon. The soldiers push out from their outpost for two-day shifts, eating rations and sleeping on the dirt floors of a few abandoned houses. Things are much quieter since they took the bazaar and the other side of the river a few weeks ago. But they still get attacked almost every day.
Lt. LANKFORD: Like I said, later in the afternoon is when you have to watch out. 'Cause around 1700 - you'll see it today - all the shops close up, less people are out. It's their key opportune time. It's starting to get dusk. They try to use the sun to their advantage. So they'll try and attack from the west. So you'll see today, later today.
LAWRENCE: The men have a haggard look and a dark, bloody sense of humor. Lankford even jokes about Bravo Company's high rate of casualties. For 140 guys, they've racked up 50 Purple Hearts. Some men have more than one.
Lt. LANKFORD: Most of them are like, you know...
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)
Lt. LANKFORD: Yeah, they come back. Like that other soldier I was talking you about that got hit by the grenade over there. His name is Burgos. He got hit in the butt. It seems like everybody's getting hit in the butt. So anyway, he's coming back. He should be back tomorrow.
LAWRENCE: Lankford's prediction about an afternoon attack is on the money.
(Soundbite of explosion)
(Soundbite of crosstalk)
LAWRENCE: It comes back on the radio that the mortar missed the base, slamming into the garbage dump just outside the gates. But a civilian and his seven-year-old son were hit by shrapnel. The boy's wounds are serious. He's lost some fingers and toes and is bleeding heavily.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
LAWRENCE: A Medevac chopper comes in to take care of the wounded civilians and attack helicopters circle. One of the pilots radios down to Third Platoon that a man with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is moving near the bazaar. They gear up.
(Soundbite of crosstalk)
LAWRENCE: Shopkeepers slam down metal doors as they see the troops moving decisively through the market. High mud brick houses close in the narrow streets, giving way to waist-high walls around gardens, orchards and canals.
Lt. LANKFORD: Just to give you an update what's going on - the guy with the RPG, this is the last place they saw him, and he was heading west, and that's the direction we're going right now.
LAWRENCE: It's a perfect labyrinth. The man with the RPG could be hiding around any corner, but more likely he cached his weapon, caught his breath, and then quietly walked away, perhaps saying salaam alekum - peace be upon you - to the soldiers as they passed him by.
(Soundbite of prayers over loudspeakers)
LAWRENCE: The evening call to prayer rings out from several different mosques at once as the dusk thickens and the soldiers call it a day. The insurgents almost never attack at night since the Americans have night vision goggles. The troops head back to their bunkered house by the shortest route possible, through the shallow river.
(Soundbite of water)
LAWRENCE: And another day begins, with patrols of the bazaar. First Platoon is on a rooftop across the street from where their old outpost was demolished by an insurgent bomb in February, killing four Afghan army troops and one American, 21-year-old Specialist Rudolph Hizon.
There's more downtime, a mix of contemplation and humor. One of the sergeants has I love you written across his chest plate. Another has born to kill. They feed an adopted street puppy scraps from their rations. Specialist Zachary Williams admits he's tired.
Specialist ZACHARY WILLIAMS (Bravo Company): It's been a long year. Lost quite a few people and just not really sure when this is going to end. I just hope it doesn't end soon for me.
LAWRENCE: He's got cartoon tattoos all over his arms and in simple black script around one wrist the name of a soldier who died in a roadside bomb and ambush in January.
What's the whole tattoo say?
Spc. WILLIAMS: It says Ira Laningham, which was his name, and the day he was he was born and the day he was taken from us. That was a hard day. They hit us with an IED on a bridge, and Laningham was the driver of that truck. And we lost him and Sergeant Hardin that day. Sergeant Hardin was in the back and Ira was killed - or Laningham was killed on the explosion. And then I really hope so was - so was the rest of the people in the vehicle so they didn't have to burn alive, 'cause the whole truck went up in flames that day.
LAWRENCE: The men trade stories. Even those who have seen previous tours in Iraq say that the fighting in Charkh has been heavier, and they've had a chance to see their enemy up close. They even pulled off a successful ambush of their own, catching insurgents out in the open. They stretch out in the dirt and chat, waiting for what they know is coming.
Lt. LANKFORD: About a week later after we got hit with our...
(Soundbite of explosion)
Lt. LANKFORD: Where'd it come from? Where'd it come from?
LAWRENCE: Then the sun gets low, the base gets rocketed, the men switch on, and it starts all over again.
Unidentified Man #2: Unit 1-6, we got eyes on. We're impacted at (unintelligible) northwest...
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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