|Mystery holes and angry ants: another Afghan day
The patrol set out before dawn, guided into the village by orange and purple glow sticks. By the end of the mission, some soldiers had come under fire. For another soldier, the closest thing to a battle was a confrontation with a swarm of angry ants.
In between, the troops picked up some intelligence, a lot of maybes and had a testy exchange with some villagers.
It was all part of a battle of wits between the Americans and their elusive Taliban foe, in which the skill lies in reading the terrain and deciphering the clues.
That rag on soil that looked recently raked and the row of sticks stuck in the ground - a bomb?
Or the nearly two dozen holes - some large, some small - dug into a barren field, white and crunchy with gypsum: Were they dug by Taliban fighters who hadn't yet had time to plant explosives in them?
Then, the soldiers spotted a trail of blood that tapered off into nothing. U.S. Army Capt. Michael Kovalsky of Fords, New Jersey, stooped to examine it.
"CSI Kovalsky," he said sardonically.
The job of NATO forces in this area of southern Afghanistan, Badula Qulp, is complex. It is about fighting and killing in support of a U.S. Marine offensive in the nearby Taliban stronghold of Marjah. But it's also a lot of detective work.
American and British troops, along with their Afghan allies and Canadian advisers, try to anticipate and pre-empt the Taliban, who in turn do the same.
Before sunrise on Wednesday, Kovalsky sent his soldiers - he commands a company from the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade - toward village compounds near an American patrol base, letting Afghan forces approach them first.
A sniper had fired on American troops the day before, and that needed checking out. Also, intelligence reports indicated Taliban fighters were not staying overnight at the compounds, but tended to occupy them in midmorning, spend the day harassing the Americans and then fall back closer to Marjah, to the southwest. Get there first, Kovalsky reasoned, and the insurgents would be denied a foothold.
Sgt. Pedro Calunga of Melba, Idaho, questioned villagers and learned that insurgents had been paying young children to collect shells discharged from their rifles during firefights.
It's called - "picking up brass" - denying the enemy knowledge of your positions. "It means they know what they're doing," said Sgt. 1st Class Natividad Ruiz of Fort Smith, Ark.
Warrant Officer Kim Doerr, a Canadian soldier, said he had seen a man with skin on his neck rubbed raw. From the strap of a heavy weapon such as a grenade launcher? The evidence was insufficient to detain him.
On other patrols, the troops have been told by villagers of men digging in doorways, likely to plant booby traps. The Americans paid one informant $500 for leading them to three concealed bombs.
On Wednesday, the Afghans met by the patrol were less forthcoming.
"We can't see where they (the Taliban) are going, what they are doing, what they are saying," said a man named Masod. "We just keep busy with our own affairs."
Ruiz stopped to talk to half-a-dozen farmers about a sniper who had fired at his men the previous day.
"Tell them someone was shooting at us," Ruiz said to his Afghan interpreter.
"They say they don't know anything about the shooting," came the reply, translated from Pashto.
"I didn't ask whether they knew anything about the shooting," Ruiz said, suspicious about the instant denial.
The exchange was edgy. Ruiz singled out one squatting man.
"Is he pissed off at me? Tell him I show his elders more respect than what he shows me," he said. Then: "Just let them know that because someone in this town is shooting at us. They've got to be careful."
The farmers said nothing.
"All right. Later, guys," Ruiz said.
Kovalsky climbed into a Stryker infantry carrier for the journey back to company headquarters. The Stryker got stuck in the mud, and those inside disembarked while another vehicle pulled it out. Then, shooting erupted around the compounds they had just left as insurgents - the Americans call them "squirters" because they fire and run - began shooting at soldiers who had lingered behind.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Greg Iverson from Chinook, Washington, dived into a field to get a fix on a tree line where the shooters might be hiding. He put his rifle magazine on an ant hole, and soon he was being bitten and flinging off his protective vest to get rid of the ants.
"I was about a thousand times more scared of those ants than those bullets that were being fired today," Iverson said later.
The gunmen got away.