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Bomb greets new U.S. troops in Afghanistan

As 10th Mountain Division troops moved down a rocky road that cuts through high cliffs and fertile land in central Afghanistan, what awaited them were not smiles, but a bomb.
CORRECTION Afghanistan Into the Valley
A U.S soldier of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, on a search operation for members of the Taliban in Tangi Valley west of Kabul. Few villagers welcomed the new American forces.Rafiq Maqbool / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Only a few Afghan villagers waved as the new American forces patrolled deep into this valley, a warning sign even in a region not exactly known for its love for foreign troops.

As the 10th Mountain Division troops moved slowly down a rocky road that cuts through high cliffs and fertile land in the central province of Wardak, what awaited them were not smiles.

It was a bomb.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

But it was a reminder that in the cat-and-mouse game of insurgency warfare, the ultimate prize is the loyalty of the man on the street or in the bazaar.

In the Tangi Valley — a region just 40 miles south of Kabul that newly deployed U.S. troops entered this year — the people's sympathies for now are with the insurgents.

That's why Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, the commander of the 3rd brigade's 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, has been traveling this narrow stretch of road that passes by wheat fields, apple trees and small villages. He clears the road of bombs and tells any Afghan willing to listen that the Americans are here to stay.

Gallahue's unit is part of a brigade that was initially slated to go to Iraq. But a rapidly deteriorating security situation, along with an increased U.S. focus on Afghanistan after the election of President Barack Obama, forced the Pentagon to rush new forces here.

Obama has ordered an additional 21,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines into Afghanistan this summer, most of whom will deploy in the country's south — the Taliban's heartland and the world's largest opium producing region.

When the brigade was last in Afghanistan, in 2006-07, they were in charge of at least seven provinces, from the rugged border with Pakistan southwest toward Helmand province.

U.S. troops increased tenfold
But with the Pentagon's shift in focus, thousands of troops now do a job previously covered by hundreds. In Wardak province alone, the number of U.S. troops has increased tenfold from this time last year.

The province is critical to Kabul's security and the flow of the country's commerce along Afghanistan's main highway. More than 50 roadside bombs went off on the Wardak stretch of Highway 1 last year, so the deployment has become an important test case of what a surge in troops can do to reverse such violence.

Many of the armored vehicles under Gallahue's command have been hit by roadside bombs. Firefights are common. But with the extra troops at hand, Gallahue says he will now hold ground, an important part of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy to make the local population confident that security will last.

If U.S. forces move into an area but don't stay, local Afghans who cooperate can later be killed by Taliban militants who accuse them of being collaborators. Only if U.S. or Afghan forces stay for the long-term, and help develop a permanent government presence, can villagers safely break away from the militants.

But that takes trust, and a long-term commitment. A common argument used by insurgents is that they will outlast the Americans, an idea best captured in a phrase often repeated here: "The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban have the time."

Commander serves as bad cop
In Wardak, Gallahue is the bad cop. He is the infantry commander whose troops fight to secure areas where the Taliban roam. The hope is that the good cop — Lt. Col. Michael Gabel, commander of the 4th Battalion, 25 Field Artillery regiment — can step in.

Gabel, a 40-year-old father of four from New York state, is a field artillery commander who works closely with the province's governor to help with economic development and bolster the Afghan security forces.

The two officers' reinforcing roles were clearly on display last week.

While Gabel sat cross-legged inside a whitewashed building in Sayed Abad with local leaders, across the hill in Chak Valley a roadside bomb hit a vehicle in Gallahue's unit, sparking a fight in which drones, attack helicopters and aircraft beat back the militants. Explosions reverberated around the rolling brown hills. Over a dozen insurgents were reportedly killed.

Days before, gunmen on motorbikes had kidnapped the father of the country's education minister near Sayed Abad. Gabel joined the governor to discuss the issue with elders, but also make a first pitch in trying to win their approval to send volunteers for a new community-based defense group called the Afghan Public Protection Force.

"If all we did is go search and kill the enemy without talking to people, without ensuring the government is running well, without getting the government up or helping the people restore the destroyed infrastructure, you might kill 10 guys here, but if you do not fix it, everybody else is going to get mad at you and then say you guys are just as bad as the enemy," said Gabel.

Soviet division defeated
Gallahue and his men know that the Tangi Valley has not been kind to foreign troops.

An entire Soviet military division was bogged down and defeated here in the 1980s, American officers say. And last year militants used a roadside bomb and rocket-propelled grenades to kill three U.S. troops and their Afghan translator and then mutilate the body of at least one of the victims.

With its cave and high vegetation, he terrain favors the insurgents. The narrow gorge is the main land-bridge between the provinces of Logar and Wardak.

So it was no surprise when a mission last Sunday to clear the eight-mile stretch of road and surrounding fields of any bombs took over nine hours. Taking territory back is hard labor best done on foot.

The mission's dangers were apparent early. Soon after entering the valley, a roadside bomb exploded 300 yards in front of the lead U.S. vehicle, scooping a large crater out of the road but hitting no soldiers.

"They might have wanted to stop us, or someone lost his nerve too early," Gallahue said of the detonation.

As his troops walked slowly down the road and then through the wheat fields and apple orchards, few people waved — a typical Afghan greeting and a sign that soldiers use to know whether they are in friendly territory. Gallahue occasionally jumped from his armored vehicle to shake hands with weary shopkeepers.

"We will not leave," Gallahue told two of them in the village of Zamuch, hoping his words would reach others.

One of the shopkeepers, an elderly man wearing a traditional tunic, complained that American troops only create problems for him and his business, just as the Taliban do. Bombs go off, and firefights send people scurrying for cover.

"The difference this time is that we are here to stay," Gallahue responded.