The high-velocity snap of a bullet passing the lanky sentry from South Carolina was the first sign combat outpost Fitzpatrick was under attack.
Men scrambled for weapons and flak jackets, running up the stairs to the roof of the pink cinder block building that had once been a police station. "Go, go, go!" went the yell to civilians caught in the open. Already soldiers were scanning the lush green foliage for movement. Then snap, snap, snap – more bullets passing by, and the platoon's first sergeant, Samuel Frantz, was calling for "203s on that tree line over there."
Within minutes, Kiowa attack helicopters arrived, swooping low in search of the Afghan Taliban gunman – standard operating procedure here. It might have been just another hit-and-run, but as the Kiowas circled in the unforgiving sun, a larger Taliban raid began against a base down the road.
The potshots had been a diversion.
"They've watched us all winter, seeing how we work," platoon leader Lt. Mark Morrison said moments afterward. "Wherever [the Kiowas] were at, they got drawn over here and that's when [the Taliban] opened up on Howz-e-Madad. It [bought] them probably two to three minutes to try to effect something."
In the half-deserted village of Pashmul, two American platoons in combat outposts three-quarters of a mile apart – pocket fortresses divided by a maze of greenery and mud houses – hold the line. For the soldiers, life is a hot, dusty cycle of tedium, guard duty, and sudden, explosive violence.
As much a front line as any in southern Afghanistan's indefinite war of ambush and improvised explosive device (IED), Pashmul is a spot where the Taliban have been stepping up the fight with bolder tactics and more frequent attacks.
It is not just the acceleration of the annual fighting season, although across the country the insurgents have telegraphed their intent with a string of raids and bombings. Here in Pashmul, they are trying to suck the foreign forces into a fruitless battle of attrition.
The "Taliban want to pull us into the grape fields," Charlie Company commander, Cpt. Duke Reim, said. "Slowly take a company from 130 and bring it down to 115. That's what they're looking to do because the more we focus here on the grape fields the less we focus on Kandahar [City]"– which, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, is the prize in NATO's campaign to protect key population centers.
In Zhari, the district in Kandahar Province where Pashmul lies, hundreds of soldiers from the First Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division are being replaced by thousands of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division pouring in as part of President Obama's surge.
But the Taliban are conducting their own surge. Rebel fighters are flowing in from Helmand Province and Pakistan. They attack at night – unusual against US forces equipped with night-vision and thermal imaging equipment. They are burying bombs ever closer to the pocket fortresses that mark the line where government control, if it ever existed, peters out completely. Not only is the Taliban's history bound up intimately with this area, but Pashmul, sloping off the country's most important road, Highway 1, is also a staging point for Kandahar City.
This is where US troops try to disrupt Taliban infiltration routes, intercepting fighters and materiel heading east toward southern Afghanistan's de facto capital.
The idea is that the cordon they provide – or even more simply, the extra mile they make insurgents travel to avoid their bases and patrols – will help NATO and Afghan forces behind them bring stability and economic development in more populous areas, undermining the insurgency's very existence.
Frequent attacks on Charlie Company's combat outposts with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and antitank guns testify to the fact that the terrain is perfectly suited to the Taliban's brand of hit-and-run tactics. The explosive blossoming of vines and marijuana fields along Kandahar Province's main river, the Arghandab, allows insurgents to come within close range of their targets without breaking cover.
Echoes of old conflicts
Since Soviet times, foreign soldiers have unfondly called this ribbon of vegetation the "green hell."
Back then, there was bloody fighting here between the Russians and the mujahideen, including members of the fledgling Taliban movement, like Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef.
In his memoirs, Mr. Zaeef recalls that: "Many times we moved, engaged, fled, and regrouped, much like the 'Taliban' do nowadays…. We fought on regardless of exhaustion, hunger, and thirst…. We would wear the same clothes for months at a time, surviving on just a loaf of bread or a few dates each day. Many were eager to fight, eager to die, especially young mujahideen like myself."
Nowadays, the greenery makes it easy to bury IEDs undetected. "We have [people] who go out there who look like farmers that are quite easily Taliban," Reim says. They are just as easily carrying explosives in their bundles as food and water. "Everywhere we walk out there could be our last step. Guys are very meticulous [about] what they do, they pay attention more [to] where they're walking. To say they're scared, I hate to use that term, but they're just very aware [of] what they're doing."
In the orchards and vineyards, Taliban bombs alone have killed five soldiers from Charlie Company and wounded 20 – one of the highest casualty rates suffered by any US unit in the war.
A magnet for insurgents
Villagers claim that fighters from Waziristan and Swat, in Pakistan, as well as from provinces in Afghanistan like Helmand, are arriving en masse, sleeping outdoors now that the nights are balmy, concealed by the greenery. One tribal elder said people had started calling the area "Mullah Omar's bed" because of all the militants bedding down.
"The weather is getting better," said the elder, who was interviewed on a visit to Kandahar City and asked not to be named, for fear of retribution. The outsiders "have come for fighting, not to eat. They want to fight the Americans, to disturb them, to make them angry, to make them leave the area. They plant mines everywhere, in every road and footpath."
And in line with the assassination campaign they are waging against government officials in Kandahar City, the insurgents are also intimidating villagers. At the start of May, two gunmen murdered a respected elder named Haji Abdullah Jan, emptying their Kalashnikovs into his body as he exited a village mosque.
His mistake: to miss a meeting called by the Taliban because he was attending his niece's wedding. In the ensuing confrontation, villagers demanded the insurgents hand over the murderers, but to no avail.
"They were very angry when he was killed," a friend of Mr. Jan's said. Interviewed in Kandahar City, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being singled out by the Taliban. "His relatives [asked the Taliban] to find the people who killed him and the Taliban told them: 'They were not Taliban, they were thieves.' Everyone knows it was the Taliban. His family knows exactly who did it."
Days later, gunmen killed another elder for daring to discuss irrigation issues with the provincial government. The Americans claim the killings have made many villagers staunchly pro-government, but "We are scared of both sides," Jan's friend confided.
Some villagers say that local Taliban commanders are sympathetic to the civilians in the area and try to mediate with the outsiders, who have little regard for petty farmers they have never met. But they lack the clout to stand up to them.
Winning over the populace
With a mission to secure the population and legitimize the Afghan government, and with the focus of the summer's campaign falling on Kandahar City, NATO commanders say they will not get bogged down in Kandahar's backwaters, where the population is sparse and the benefits of a protracted fight are few.
Britain's Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the top commander in southeastern Afghanistan, said improving governance in built-up areas would enable NATO to outflank the Taliban by "trying to get inside the population's mind," where the inducements the government can offer may sideline the insurgents.
"We're not in the business of conducting an attritional campaign," Carter says. "[The] business we're doing here is about bringing people into the tent and using the full range of political levers to achieve that effect. So we will not be going head-to-head with insurgents in vineyards and orchards.
"What we will be doing will be a rather more sophisticated approach that plays to the enemy's weaknesses" – in other words, the inclusive politics and economic development NATO wants the Afghan government to deliver.
Reim says the real achievement is simply being there.
"We went into an area that had never been controlled before, that would take fire every day, and we beat that off," he says. "We're in a place that really upsets the Taliban. It drives them crazy that we're sitting where we are."