Afghanistan's wild wild west

Updated:

CAMP WILSON, Afghanistan — The patrol was going fine until the trucks got stuck.

The rear wheels of two massive, 30-ton armored troops carriers were buried up to the top of the rim in a wet, thick mud. Then the shooting started.

The vehicles were part of a combat patrol organized by C Company of the 1st battalion, 12th Infantry. Company commander Duke Reim led his men on foot through villages and fields on a mission to find out who was living in a region that is in his area of responsibility but into which his unit has never ventured.

Reim and his men had just talked to locals who told them how the Taliban imposed a curfew in the area, and how the Talibs warned villagers that if they told the soldiers anything they would be killed.

Then, after the soldiers had left, and just a few hundred feet from where they had talked to Afghan villagers, shots rang out across the open field.

The soldiers scrambled for cover, ready for a fight. They looked for the shooter, but saw no one. C Company’s third platoon leader, Lt. Nathan Wagnon, said it wasn’t an attack; it was a message.

“It’s just harassing fire,” he said. “They’re basically just letting us know that, hey we know you’re here and we don’t like it.”

This area is called the “Heart of Darkness,” and sits just a mile from the battalion’s main base. It’s an area where the Taliban rules and Talibs move around on motorbikes with near impunity in miles of heavily vegetated, sparsely populated flood plain.

The 1-12 battalion is part of an effort to secure the villages surrounding Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar. Kandahar city has been called the “Center of Gravity” in the fight in southern Afghanistan. Coalition forces are ringing the city in an effort to prevent the Taliban from gaining power and mounting attacks inside the city

On the edge of that ring is C Company of the 1-12. Like much of Afghanistan, the company is in charge of a large swaths of rural territory too big for its limited number of troops to secure. So the coalition and the villagers are making do in a kind of in-between world, that leaves many Afghans stuck between — and equally fearful of — the Taliban and the U.S. troops.

Each side’s territory is pretty clear. A road that runs south from the battalion’s base, called Camp Wilson, divides the area that his men can patrol, and the area the Taliban effectively control.

“That is basically the demarcation line between what we’re protecting and what we’re disrupting,” said 1-12’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Reik Andersen.

The “Heart of Darkness,” is more "Apocalypse Now" than Iraq. Like Vietnam, booby traps and ambushes are the most common form of attack here, says Reim. His unit patrols this area, and Reim says the road is his “interdiction line.” He points to a map in the company’s headquarters, showing a large area west of the base where American troops have never ventured.

“Over here, in Sangsar, is where the Taliban actually originated,” he says.

And the Taliban are still there, and largely in control. The price has been heavy when C Company has crossed that line. Since September, the company has lost four men to booby traps and hidden bombs aimed at foot patrols.

The drive down the “interdiction line” in an armored personnel carrier is nerve-wracking. Its takes 20 minutes to drive just one mile because the road has been repeatedly blown up by roadside bombs.

Reim and his men drive down the dangerous road at least twice a day, where they set up patrols and go house to house in an effort to expand what Reim calls his “sphere of influence.” The captain says his company has been attacked seven times on the road in the past month by snipers with recoilless rifles.

“They’ve also used the RPG 9’s over there, the heat rounds, that have actually penetrated the [vehicle] hull,” he said. “So a lot of guys are usually worried coming down through there it might be their time.”

When they arrive to a village where Reim wanted to talk to locals, the soldiers find it abandoned.

Bullets have left pockmarks in the mud brick walls of farms and houses. Some buildings have collapsed from airstrikes or artillery. These are scars from battles Canadian troops fought here with the Taliban in 2007 and 2008. The Canadians took heavy casualties. No coalition troops have come here since then, until today.

About a half mile away, the troops do find Afghans in a small set of mud brick buildings and compounds. C Company’s third platoon leader Wagnon finds an Afghan man named Sultan. Sultan is standing at the door to his home with his children. He says about 50 people live in this village. Wagnon asks if his troops can provide anything: food, blankets, medicine. Sultan’s father, a bearded old man named Faisal Mohammad, smiles and laughs before responding.

“Yes, we need blanket, we need everything, we are poor people,” he says. “But the Taliban won’t let us take anything from the coalition forces.”

“Well,” the Lieutenant responds, “We are going to provide consistent security in this area. We want to help you guys live a secure life, and have the things you need. So any information you can give us about the Taliban, will help us keep them away from you.”

The men thank the Americans. They ask them for blankets, but to bring them discreetly. The Afghans continue to giggle nervously through the conversation. This area has never been secure. The Americans are here today. But this will continue to be Taliban territory until the U.S. and coalition set up a base or some kind of permanent presence here.

Then, the shots ring out.

It could be the same people the soldiers just talked to. No one knows. Wagnon says it’s difficult to know who is friend or foe here.

“It’s very difficult to know if you can actually trust what they’re saying,” he said. “And to an extent, they’re right, they are caught in the middle of it. So a lot of the times because they’re in that situation they’ll play both sides.”

Wagnon says there are specific instances where villagers have told troops they don’t know where the Taliban is, only to have soldiers get ambushed in the same area shortly after. Still, he says he understands.

“Honestly, if I were in their shoes, I’d do the same thing. I don’t blame them,” he said. “It’s a complicated situation. “

“That’s hardest part, [is who we're] actually dealing with,” Reim says. “Farmer by day, Taliban by night.”

Reim says he’ll continue to push deeper into this area. He hopes to set up an outpost so he and his unit can better monitor the region, and provide closer security for the locals. But it’s hard with such a big area and so few troops.

C Company is at the edge the current counterinsurgency effort to secure bigger population centers farther east. The Afghans here may be stuck between the Taliban and the U.S. troops for some time to come.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the company described, which is C Company, and to correct the spelling of Lt. Col. Reik Andersen's name.