Above Afghan valley, a constant scanning for bombs


From a rocky knoll 600 feet above the lush Arghandab Valley, the war in Afghanistan looks deceptively peaceful.

At dawn Friday, Afghan girls stooped to milk cows in mud-walled compounds. Farmers trudged across furrowed fields, carrying scythes for cutting wheat. Boys flew kites of tattered plastic from rooftops. Donkeys brayed.

Peering through the morning haze from his perch atop Observation Post Kuhat, Army Spc. Victor Smyrnow paid scant attention to the bucolic scene below. He was scanning the valley for signs of roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Four soldiers in his battalion were wounded by three explosions Thursday, and more patrols were heading into the valley Friday.

The U.S. military says that elsewhere in Kandahar province it is combining security sweeps with development projects and attempts to bolster local Afghan governance. This full-bore counterinsurgency strategy is designed to wrest control of Kandahar from the Taliban before U.S. troops begin withdrawing next summer.

But in Kuhat, a few miles west of Kandahar city in the fertile Arghandab Valley, soldiers are focused on survival. This is roadside bomb country, with the highest concentration in Afghanistan, local commanders say.

“Development? Oh, no, we’re not at the development stage yet,” Smyrnow said. Roadside bombs “are the main thing we’re working on around here.”

If anything, the 2nd Platoon barely has the manpower to protect itself, much less practice the finer points of the counterinsurgency strategy promoted by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

“We don’t even tell the ANA [Afghan national army] in advance where we’re going, just for our own safety,” said 1st Lt. Jordan Ritenour, 24, a boyish UCLA graduate who commands the platoon.

The 2nd Platoon at Combat Outpost Kuhat has found more than 45 roadside bombs since arriving in late December. Just two weeks ago, a young specialist lost his leg to an explosion. Six members of the U.S. battalion that left here last fall were killed in the village, the highest casualty rate in Afghanistan, largely because of roadside bombs.

A particularly vicious explosive greeted the incoming battalion during its first month here. Three bombs of seven strung together in a so-called daisy chain exploded as a patrol hiked to clear the village school of a suspected Taliban weapons cache Jan. 19.

A company commander and an explosives expert were killed. A platoon leader lost a leg. Three other soldiers also were wounded. The bombs were packed with ball bearings that ripped into the men at supersonic speeds.

Smyrnow, 24, was blown off his feet. His observation post partner, Spc. Jacob Lind, was slammed into a culvert and knocked unconscious.

“The guys who make these IEDs have it down pat. They’re good,” Lind, 20, said Friday as the two young soldiers described the attack, still fresh in their minds more than five months later. “Even their tripwires have tripwires.”

The deadly experiences have intensified the efforts atop the hill. Day and night, troops scan the valley with high-powered binoculars and night-vision equipment, looking for anyone who might be carrying, burying or wiring a roadside bomb.

When patrols venture out, the men on the hill warn them of any suspicious people or movements on the paths ahead. If they need to provide cover fire, they have a .50-caliber machine gun, a medium-range machine gun and other weapons.

The village of Kuhat was initially hostile to the platoon, part of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division based at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Someone tossed a grenade over the barricaded wall of their tiny compound. Villagers spread rumors that the platoon, the first U.S. unit to live in the village, would use night-vision goggles to ogle women.

Today, the platoon believes, most villagers have accepted the Americans, if warily.

I’d say half of them are sitting on the fence, waiting to see who wins out,” Ritenour said.

The most powerful village elder professes to support the platoon, Ritenour said, “but mostly out of self-interest.”

The January patrol was attacked after soldiers told villagers they were headed to the school. Now, platoon members don’t let anyone know when patrols are scheduled or where they are going.

The 2nd Platoon has provided coveted construction jobs to villagers, who built and maintain the combat outpost. It has repaired wells and handed out school supplies. It gives away food and water. The platoon medic, operating from a small tent aid station crammed with drugs and medical supplies, has treated villagers. Among them was a farmer whose foot was blown off by a bomb.

After nearly nine years of war, that is the extent of development aid in Kuhat. The Taliban holds sway here at the moment, but the platoon will consider its yearlong tour successful if it gets the bomb situation under control before another U.S. unit takes over in August.

Ritenour said villagers now come forward with information about bombs and Taliban movements. This week, a tip from the village led to the arrest of a local member of the militant group who then provided information on fellow insurgents, the lieutenant said.

On the hilltop, Smyrnow and Lind said the platoon has begun to turn Kuhat away from the Taliban. The message, Lind said, has been, “The Taliban isn’t helping; we can, if you help us.”

At the same time, he said, “this is their country. If anything is going to change, they’re going to have to do it, not us.”

In their little corner of the Arghandab Valley, the two men on the hill were intent Friday on keeping their buddies in the platoon alive, but also, they said, on improving relations with villagers.

“We’ve set up the new guys for success,” Smyrnow said. If the platoon can significantly reduce roadside bombs, he said, development projects might finally begin in earnest under the new unit.

It was their third day on the hill. At dusk, the young men would climb down the hill to the combat outpost. There, they would head out on foot patrol, watched from on high by another shift of soldiers scanning the valley.

“This place is all IEDs all the time,” Lind said, squinting in the hazy morning sunlight that was beginning to bake the cool green valley. “As much as we go out, we’re definitely pushing our luck.”

The sun climbed higher. The two soldiers moved into the shade and resumed their long watch from the safety of the hill before the time came to venture back into the perilous valley below.