Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

U.S. troops walk a dangerous line in Arghandab

July 25, 2010
A member of the U.S. Army's explosive ordinance disposal unit scans the area around a burning M-ATV armored vehicle after it struck an improvised explosive device (IED) near Combat Outpost Nolen. Pic by Bob Strong, Reuters

A member of the U.S. Army's explosive ordinance disposal unit scans the area around a burning M-ATV armored vehicle after it struck an improvised explosive device (IED) near Combat Outpost Nolen. Pic by Bob Strong, Reuters

The walk to besieged U.S. Combat Outpost Nolen is only 700 metres in a straight line, but for the soldiers who walk it every day it is an extraordinary feat of fitness and defeating their own fear in one of Afghanistan’s riskiest front lines.

The only road, a dusty farm track known as “Route Phillies”, is blanketed in roadside bombs designed to kill or maim soldiers, and occasional larger bombs make them dangerous too for even heavily armoured trucks.

To skirt that, troops opt instead for a zig-zagging obstacle course across grape fields separated by four metre-high mud walls, walked in full combat gear and in savage 45C heat.

The grape field are nothing like a western vineyard, but instead grow between deep, muddy trenches covered in weeds, and perfect for concealing bombs. The humidity in the trenches is unbelievable, while the narrow space concentrates a blast.

Walking behind a patrol leader and his Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, gunner, I completely missed the tiny white wires coming out of a vine and marking the position of a Taliban IED. Luckily they didn’t, and all three of us backtracked to try another way.

Several U.S. soldiers have been maimed and wounded by bombs here. A two kilometre walk can take hours and the troops say the terrain makes Afghanistan a far worse warfront than Iraq.

On the few open fields, troops must give way their caution for pressure-plate bombs and sprint across the flat hard-packed ground favoured by the Taliban for ambushes. They lay behind walls at one end, turning it into a shooting range.

The one advantage U.S. troops have are the Apache gunship helicopters, or “fast guns”, following patrols overhead until they reach the gates of COP Nolen, which has been under near-daily insurgent attack for weeks.

The numbers of soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan tell nothing of the fear of leaving the razor wire around their tiny mud-walled compound each day, trying to stay in the footsteps of the man in front of them. In the trenches that is futile and I managed perhaps one footstep in every 10.

Falling over a mud wall with a 40kilo pack and weapons, or even a journalist’s backpack filled with computers, satellite gear and clothes, everyone wonders if the place they fall will be where the next bomb is hidden.

The fields swamp visibility on all sides and soldiers freely admit their insurgent enemies move faster in the fields and with better local knowledge of the ground.

My misgivings started as soon as I stepped out of the thick stone-filled walls at a much larger base, although the soldiers told me that nerves are normal. “Don’t worry man, this baby will knock them down when it starts,” gunner Alberto Mendiola told me with a quick smile as he hefted his 10-kilo weapon.

Luckily for us, this time it didn’t start, which the troops put down to the Apaches buzzing low overhead. The worst thing for them that day was help myself, a Reuters cameraman and a photographer over the walls.

It’s the only thing they don’t have to face every day.

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