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First rule of Afghan War: Watch where you step

ZHARI, Kandahar, Afghanistan — In Kandahar it’s all a matter of footing. Where you step and where you don’t.
Foot patrolling in this area will make you paranoid, if you think about it. You watch how soldiers step. They always take the hard path.

ZHARI, Kandahar, Afghanistan — In Kandahar it’s all a matter of footing. Where you step and where you don’t.

Foot patrolling in this area will make you paranoid, if you think about it. You watch how soldiers step. They always take the hard path. It’s tantamount to Army doctrine here in Zhari district of Kandahar. More than one sergeant has asked me if I know the threat, halfway through a patrol.

A lot of zigzagging through the plowed, hardened fields rather than a straight file, trudging straight into the stalks of corn rather than taking the around path, stomping into marijuana patches. The worst are the grape walls, hardened mud some four-five feet high. They climb over those.

While 2-101st Brigade keeps pushing further south and west in one of the largest operations of this nine-year war, the Taliban have mostly eschewed direct firefights in the face of overwhelming fire power and air support, but they can make a pressure plate out of two blocks of wood taped with a metal connection wired to a 9 volt battery and a farmer’s jug filled full of Homemade (HME) explosive. The kind of stuff that can be concocted using fertilizer and metal byproducts.

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Once inside the rows, some soldiers prefer to walk in the trough between the rows, others seem to prefer to tip toe the ledge above. Depends on the area. Depends on if you’ve seen your buddies injured or blown up before. Around Outpost Fitzpatrick, one of the worst IEDed (Improvised Explosive Device) areas, the lowest path to cross the row may have a pressure plate, with the trough below having a trip wire connected to the same IED.

Most soldiers stop at any root or bit of metallic trash resembling a wire. Afghan soldiers are usually even better at spotting them. There’s always one guy crazy enough to start digging it up with his hands. Staff Sgt. Derek Leach of 1-75 CAF will dig up the pressure plates if you let him. On one patrol his captain had to remind him it was better to blow up the hole rather than dig in it to find out what kind of bomb it was. This was after half the platoon had walked down the path, straddling an IED wire.

Then there was the morning the Afghan soldier (ANA) called LaRasha brought in a the whole contraption — pressure plate, wires and jug of explosive, that he’d just dug up from outside the compound they were occupying. The U.S. guys congratulated him and politely asked him to take it outside. LaRasha usually leads the patrol. He gives his rifle to another soldier and holds the mine detector out in front.

Patrols are about fighting vegetation and humidity more than dodging bullets. They almost never use the same route, unless they have to. Like if they already found five IEDs on the way to take down a Taliban flag, and know that’s the only real safe way out. The villagers say they stare at the U.S. because, “sometimes they fire at us.”

Soldiers will tell you they’ve all stepped on IEDs, they just didn’t go off. “There’s IEDs we’ve probably walked over a couple of times,” Lt. Alex Zeller of Bravo Troop, 1-75 CAV said. “They set them in. Then we kill the person who set it, so no one knows where they are.”

A previous unit, Bravo of 1-502nd lost at least five soldiers to IEDs on foot patrols in Pashmul this summer and wounded reached almost 25 percent of the company. 1-75 Squadron has lost at least four soldiers to IEDs in the last month by my count. Two were killed on foot and two were killed in an IED blast that tore apart a lead vehicle ferrying the unit’s sergeant major.

A few weeks ago Charlie Company pushed far down a dirt road and set up a patrol base in an abandoned compound and started sandbagging it in.

Initially the patrols were to “clear” nearby compounds. In other words asking locals a few basic questions and then blowing up some empty grape huts. Then the IEDs started. At least three were seeded at an intersection with another dirt roadway — blowing up one heavy Army MRAP’s tire off, and a day later tearing a specialized route clearing vehicle apart.

“The Taliban is trying to wall off the area with another belt of IEDs,” said Captain Mike Gold whose platoon has been living and patrolling out of an abandoned compound.

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And they kept planting IEDs, or watermelons as they’re called in radio code, in the same place. It works for them, until it doesn’t. A day later a U.S. 500-pound bomb was dropped on two individuals digging at the same IED spot at night, a few days later a man was killed digging there again in daylight.

It’s difficult to tell how complicit the locals are. In Zahri, the birthplace of the Taliban, one wants to say there is no separation between the Taliban and the local Pashtuns, at least culturally, despite what the Army says.

Yet on two patrols I went on, villagers warned U.S. soldiers about entering a house and a field supposedly mined with IEDS. One evening, a man offered to take a whole platoon on the “safe way” through the town.