Fighting Season 2011. The wait for opening day
It’s springtime in the Arghandab Valley, north of Kandahar. Birds are chirping, the grape vines are covered with fresh green leaves and the fields are filled with farmers tending to their new crops. There is an air of calm but everyone is quietly waiting for the real season to arrive. The fighting season.
Last summer this fertile valley was scene to some of the fiercest fighting of the war. During a two week embed at Combat Outpost Nolen, a three-man Reuters team of Rob Taylor, Christophe Vanderperre, and myself, witnessed a daily barrage of small arms fire, rocket propelled grenades and watched as soldiers injured by
improvised mines were flown away in medevac helicopters.
The soldiers were with the U.S. Army’s 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, and last July they had just arrived in Afghanistan to assume control of four small outposts in this lush, rural valley. In the first two weeks of their deployment they had suffered multiple amputations from ied explosions and one man had been killed by sniper fire.
Their commander, Lt Col David Flynn, called the area surrounding their base “a veritable minefield.”
Fast forward eight months. The 1-320 is preparing to leave Afghanistan and return home. But they are leaving a remarkably different place. I’ve just returned for another embed and am struck by the changes.
Route Philly, the main road leading to COP Nolen was so heavily mined last summer that the troops were forced to cut across grape fields and climb mud walls in 125 F heat to reach their post. Today Route Philly is neatly graveled and leads past multiple checkpoints manned by Afghan national police on the way to the base.
At Nolen, the tent we slept in has been replaced by a new dining hall, complete with a wide screen television. The rustic outhouse has been upgraded to porta-johns.
But the most striking change comes when you leave the base and continue deeper into the farmland towards the Arghandab River. Flynn leads a party of incoming U.S. officers and we continue on foot down the gravel road through what was once a no-man’s land of insurgents and buried land mines. The village of Charqolba Olya, a mere 200 meters away, was used as a fire base by insurgents last summer, offering them a vantage point to shoot small arms, rpg’s and mortars at the base. Today the same compound is called Strongpoint Lugo, and is manned by U.S. and Afghan soldiers.
Walking further we pass more police checkpoints, each several hundred meters apart, and reach Strongpoint Manley and one kilometer later we arrive at Combat Outpost Durham. These new bases are tidy, but far from luxurious. More importantly, the U.S. and Afghan army units stationed here hold vital ground.
The expanded military presence in the valley came about after months of hard fighting last summer and fall, as well as a concerted effort to take advantage of a lull in Taliban activity during the winter months.
So for now, there is peace in the valley. And an uneasy wait for the next season to begin.