The metal detector was almost off the scale.
In front of a dusty track lay a five-foot-wide crater where an Afghan farmer had been killed by a roadside bomb. Scrap metal used for shrapnel was buried everywhere.
For the United States and coalition soldiers fighting the Taliban, every civilian the insurgents kill adds weight to the argument they repeat over and over: "The solution is to make the Taliban go away," Lt. Mark Morrison, a US platoon leader from Albany, N.Y., deployed in southern Afghanistan, told villagers. "That way you won't be in danger, and I won't be in danger."
Homemade bombs were the biggest source of coalition casualties last year, killing 275 out of 520 troops, and almost four times as many civilians.
But with the emphasis of the NATO campaign more firmly fixed than ever on avoiding civilian casualties, insurgents laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are usually long gone before confirmation of all the criteria needed to order an attack comes through.
Instead, foreign soldiers focus on cultivating relationships with villagers, trying to persuade them that homemade bombs are just as much a threat to farmers in their fields as they are to NATO soldiers on patrol, and that handing over the insurgents is the only solution. The idea is to beat the IED menace by winning hearts and minds.
"We need your help," Morrison (2nd platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battlion, 12th Infantry Regiment) told a group of Afghan farmers on a recent patrol. "I know how to kill the Taliban – we are very, very good at that. What I need your help with is finding where they come from and where they go to. You need to tell me who doesn't belong with you."
It was phrase he repeated to anyone he stopped to talk to. Making a common cause with the civilians whose support is crucial to the counterinsurgency campaign is an obvious ploy. Only by squeezing the Taliban out of the civilian populations where they hide will NATO be able to push them to the negotiating table, as the architects of US and coalition strategy envision. At a conference in London this week, talk also focused on reaching out to rank-and-file Taliban fighters who might not be ideologically committed to the fight.
But persuading Afghans whose only priority is survival to take a stand is also time-consuming and relentlessly frustrating. Although several civilians had been killed by homemade bombs in Morrison's operations area in Zhari, a volatile district in southern Kandahar Province, few seem ready to risk standing up to the Taliban. Some villagers do oblige; far more profess ignorance of the insurgents' doings or blatantly lie.
Using “night letters,” the insurgents threaten to behead anyone who talks to foreign soldiers. According to locals, they have spies in each village keeping vigil. Laborers in the fields neither want to be seen talking to NATO patrols alone nor questioned in a large group when one of their number may be a Taliban informant. "I have no problem with you guys," one villager says. "But we are scared of the bad guys. They kill innocent people if they see them giving information."
For soldiers engaged in gun battles with the insurgents almost every day, this equivocation is understandable but exasperating.
Says Morrison: "I think more people need to be killed by IEDs before they'll believe ... that the threat is really to everyone.”