LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. US troops in Afghanistan, and their NATO allies, have had their sights set on Kandahar for months now. The idea is to defeat the Taliban on their home turf. Well today, a NATO helicopter attack killed 20 insurgents. Meanwhile, the US Army's 101st Airborne has been pushing into areas that the Taliban once controlled. That's meant moving troops through territory booby trapped by the rebels. Reporter Ben Gilbert is embedded with the 101st Airborne.
BEN GILBERT: What's called the ï¿½heart of darknessï¿½ in Zhari District west of Kandahar City has long been a thorn in the side of the US-led international coalition here. Taliban insurgents held much of the area for the last nine years and US troops who ventured there were attacked regularly, sometimes stuck in firefights for hours. When troops from the 101st Airborne pushed into Zhari earlier this month as part of the Kandahar campaign, they figured the area would be heavily mined. So instead of risking their own vehicles or bodies, they decided to use bulldozers and bombs to remove the threatï¿½over and overï¿½and over. Army engineers attached to the 1st battalion, 75th cavalry regiment used sticks of C-4 explosive to blow up farm buildings, houses, and in at least one case, a school. US troops say all were abandoned or used as Taliban fighting positions. The Army shot rockets with ropes of explosives attached, called MICLICs, to clear paths through the fields. Engineers followed with bulldozers. First sergeant Larry Breland of Chaos Company is a 17-year veteran of the army with two tours in Iraq under his belt. He says he's never seen so many explosives used as when company commander Mike Gold was moving his men during the operation.
LARRY BRELAND: This company has fired in one day, definitely in the 10,000 dollar range for one MICLIC, we fired 16 of them. Captain Gold, when he clears a road he clears a road, it's clear.
GILBERT: Journalists were prevented from entering the areas at the beginning of the operation. The cavalry squadron here said they didn't want images of houses being blown up or bulldozed in the news, even though the army says it's only taken down buildings that were uninhabited, used by the Taliban or presented a clear ambush danger to US troops. Captain Ryan Kort blew up a compound he and his platoon used as a patrol base. He said it was abandoned.
RYAN KORT: We had evidence that it was possibly an enemy fighting position. We also had a lot of stuff we just couldn't take with us, so we just had to bury that in the remnants of the building. We also fortified it so I wanted to make sure that it wouldn't be used against us or the government again.
GILBERT: Does it worry you that destroying some of these places could be counterproductive toward the counterinsurgency strategy?
KORT: Yes, possibly, it could be. But I think the key point is that we try to make amends if we do have to go in and destroy this building. We've never kicked out any families, we've never taken over any building that has had furniture in it or signs of occupancy.
GILBERT: When Kort says "making amends," he means that soldier's have been promising compensation to the owners of damaged or destroyed property. The US military issues them "claims cards." Captain Kort says he didn't issue one for the compound he blew, because no one came to him in the week that his platoon was staying there. But bulldozers clearing a path from that base to another compound drew the anger of local villagers. The machines moved straight through farmers' newly plowed fields. A frail, weathered Afghan farmer with a white beard named Hajji Jilal stood among a group of Afghans and watched the American soldiers walk by.
GILBERT: ï¿½They bulldozed some of our compounds," said Hajji Jilal. "They bulldozed the trees, which are blocking the canal. Now we can't get water to the orchard,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½We need the water for our fields. If the Americans want to help us, get the trees out of our canals." US troops say they knock down the trees and walls next to canals because Taliban fighters use them as cover to move through the area. The Afghans may be angry, but Captain Kort says the destruction is in some ways a positive thing. He says Afghans will now be forced to get in contact with their local government, which is the overall goal of the operation.
KORT: Now, the key thing is they've to go to the district center to make a case with us. So in the end, it's a win because the Afghan government is giving them compensation. It's not the US, per se, it's the Afghan government and a district governor signing off on this compensation.
GILBERT: But in Zhari, the District governor's office is tiny, understaffed and, with the reputation of the Afghan government these days, not exactly the most trusted institution. To mitigate all that, Americans are providing a lot of oversight.
TODD CLARK: Do you have any ownership papers for your house? Any tax documents, or a letter from the shura members or village elders?
GILBERT: Today at the Zhari District Center, US Army Major Todd Clark asked an Afghan farmer named Fayzullah to prove his ownership of a house and some trees the farmer says were destroyed by an American bulldozer last week. The line for claims at the Zhari District Center is pretty long these days, and the claims process complicated. There are few property deeds in this region, so Afghans need to get verification of ownership from neighbors or village elders. This opens the door to corruption, or to taking a cut of the compensation. Fayzullah got about $1300 in cash for his destroyed property. He said later he was satisfied with the payment. US troops here hope this process won't last much longer. They're now in the final phase of the clearing operation in Zhari. Now, they say, comes the much harder part, trying to protect the locals from the Taliban and win them over to the side of the Afghan government. They hope the destruction they've caused, pushing the Taliban out, won't make that job more difficult. For the World, I'm Ben Gilbert with the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne in Zhari District, Afghanistan.