Image: Afghanistan's tough terrain
Julie Jacobson  /  AP file
Army Spc. Alex Toth, of Milwaukee, Wis., leaps over an irrigation ditch while on patrol with 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.
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updated 5/14/2010 3:56:29 PM ET 2010-05-14T19:56:29

U.S. soldiers had just made it through a dense patch of vineyards to a cluster of abandoned mud compounds when the radio operator let out a shout: "Sir, we are about to be ambushed from three different locations!"

The men rushed for cover, dodging a potential attack and cursing Kandahar province's tough terrain that is tailor made for the Taliban. The deadly obstacle course may haunt thousands of additional U.S. troops pouring into this corner of southern Afghanistan for what is expected to be the make-or-break offensive of the nearly 9-year-old war.

The thick fields, snaking canals and bomb-laden dirt roads in key districts around the provincial capital, Kandahar City, force jittery soldiers out of their heavily armored vehicles into a landscape dotted with towering mud compounds that provide militants with ideal cover.

Finding a way to overcome this terrain will be key to this summer's military operation in Kandahar, where at least 15 coalition soldiers have died since the beginning of the year, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.

The Marines who invaded the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah in Helmand province in February also faced somewhat challenging terrain since the area contained a network of canals that slowed their progress. But the poppy fields around Marjah were flat and were not surrounded by tall mud walls — unlike the vineyards around Kandahar that are used to produce raisins.

"The agriculture and infrastructure of this country seem like they were designed specifically for guerrilla warfare," Lt. Scott Doyle said at the beginning of his platoon's recent patrol in the heart of Taliban country in Zhari district.

Their experience over the next three hours would provide a snapshot of what battle will look like for many troops in Kandahar.

'Deceiving us'
Within minutes of leaving their rugged outpost in the village of Lako Khel, the soldiers intercepted radio chatter indicating the Taliban were monitoring their movements.

Doyle ordered his men to halt in one of the area's many vineyards, which contain rows of dirt mounds up to 6 feet (2 meters) high. The tall mud walls that often encircle the vineyards provide good cover for the soldiers but also make it easier for the Taliban to sneak around undetected.

The troops heard one of the militants say over the radio that the Taliban didn't have the key for the weapons cache nearby, so they would just keep an eye on the soldiers.

"They know we intercept their communications and could be deceiving us," Doyle said, scanning the rugged fields and thick tree cover in vain to catch a glimpse of the militants watching them.

The uncertainty about the Taliban's radio chatter makes it that much more difficult for the troops to navigate the challenging terrain, forcing them to think like chess masters and play out multiple scenarios to avoid an ambush.

The troops, part of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, questioned a pair of teenagers lingering in a nearby field.

One of them, 18-year-old Abdul Manan, gave the troops from 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company some information.

"Once you go past that farm to the east, there are lots of Taliban and one of them has a radio," Manan said.

But trying to discern friend from foe in this war is exceedingly difficult, especially in an area like Zhari where Taliban leader Mullah Omar first established the militant group in the 1990s.

"Unfortunately the Taliban use kids as spotters," said Doyle, a 38-year-old from Charlottesville, Virginia. "Even during firefights, they will send kids out to spot our positions."

'Prepare the rocket'
Suddenly, the platoon commander's radio operator, Spc. Arthur Harris, called out that the Taliban had instructed one of their fighters to "prepare the rocket."

The platoon had taken rocket fire farther north the day before, so Doyle decided to get his men moving and pushed them southeast along a small canal.

As the group approached a cluster of abandoned mud compounds, Harris ran up to Doyle and yelled that they were facing an imminent ambush.

Doyle sent his men in all four directions to seek cover behind mud walls and set up a defensive perimeter. But their location was terribly vulnerable, with 15-foot-high (4.5-meter) compounds to their south and west cutting off all visibility. The line of sight wasn't much better to the north and east, with small fields leading to walls that stopped visibility after about 30 feet (10 meters).

At that point, Harris, the radio operator, sprinted toward the platoon commander, leading another soldier, Staff Sgt. Richard Eifert, to dive for cover.

"What did you hear?" Eifert called over to Harris.

"I thought I heard potshots," Harris responded.

"Dude, it was just me stepping on a twig!" Eifert said.

'Pretty sketchy'
After waiting 10 minutes, Doyle decided to move his men to the south to avoid the ambushes the Taliban said they set up to the east, one of them at a mosque about 650 feet (200 meters) away.

"It's pretty sketchy going south, but if we go east, we will probably run into something pretty planned," said Doyle.

As the soldiers began to push south on a narrow dirt path bounded on both sides by 10-foot-high (3-meter) walls, Spc. Richard Antonishek muttered to himself, "This is going to be pretty close quarters."

After walking for a few minutes, Sgt. Jon Hendricks bounded over a wall and spotted two men crouched on a dirt road about 650 feet (200 meters) away, possibly inserting a bomb. One was wearing an AK-47 assault rifle around his chest.

"Two men in the road! One AK!" Hendricks shouted, clicking off the safety on his M-14 rifle and firing three rounds.

"Damn, I pulled the trigger too soon," said Hendricks, 27, after he realized the shots had missed and the men had fled.

The troops chose not to pursue the men because the radio chatter indicated the Taliban had inserted another roadside bomb farther to the east, leaving the soldiers with little choice but to push west along a dirt road with 20-foot-high (6-meter) abandoned compounds on either side.

"Remember to watch high on these rooftops for fighters!" Doyle yelled to his men as they began to make their way west.

After walking about 500 feet (150 meters), Hendricks pointed out a possible bomb site, yelling, "We've got a freshly dug hole with an ant trail leading through one of these walls!"

There was an identical site almost directly across the road.

One of the soldiers exhaled an obscenity in one long breath.

"They have eyes on us and will shoot!" Harris suddenly yelled.

The soldiers crouched down and bounded 65 feet (20 meters) across an open space to the cover of a wall surrounding a large field, relieved at having made it out of the tangled web of fields and compounds without stumbling into a Taliban ambush.

"I guess we're not going to wait around for them," Doyle said sarcastically as he ordered his men to begin the journey back to their base. "Just tell the Taliban to leave a message if we're not here."

The Taliban were in a much worse mood after the day's events and cursed the soldiers for not walking into one of their ambushes, said Staff Sgt. Daniel Spencer, who monitors the group's communications.

"May God turn their faces black," the Taliban said over the radio, referring to the soldiers.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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