Insurgents in Kandahar's undergrowth drag Nato forces into 'green hell'

Spring brings renewed risk from IEDs, and political solutions seem a long way off. Julius Cavendish reports from Pashmul

Under a baby-blue sky Sgt Michael Ingram was bleeding his life into the Afghan dirt. Explosives hidden in a mud house had taken off both his legs, and as the call went out for a medic, it took a moment to realise that the medic was also hurt, along with a third US soldier who had taken shrapnel in his shoulder.

One of the most popular men in Charlie Company, First Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Sgt Ingram died from massive blood loss. "There is no way to comp-rehend an IED (improvised explosive device) until you see someone hit one," Lt Mark Morrison, a platoon leader in the same company, said later. "Then everything changes."

In the half-deserted village of Pashmul – as much a front line as any in southern Afghanistan's indefinite war of ambush and IED – Taliban fighters are stepping up the fight. With fighters arriving from Helmand and Pakistan, and budding vegetation providing ample cover, the Taliban are using bolder tactics in an attempt to suck foreign forces into a battle of attrition. "The Taliban want to pull us into the grape fields," Charlie Company's commander, Capt Duke Reim, said. "Slowly take a company from 130 [men] 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 population-centric campaign.

Although President Hamid Karzai's government hopes to jump-start a peace deal later this week with its much advertised "peace jirga" – a talking shop for government officials and rebel emissaries – there is no sign of any letup in the fighting. Taliban intent has been visible over the past two weeks in a series of brazen attacks on high-profile targets around Afghanistan.

In Pashmul, the rebels are burying bombs ever closer to the pocket fortresses that mark the line where government control, if it ever existed, peters out completely. This where US soldiers disrupt Taliban infiltration routes to Kandahar City and its outlying towns, intercepting fighters and material heading towards the city. Nato forces are overstretched, and commanders have ramped up the numbers here over the past 12 months, from a single Canadian rifle company (around 150 men) to the 3,500 US paratroopers of the 101st Airborne, arriving now. Their mission is to provide the kind of cordon that will allow Nato, and Afghan forces behind them, to bring the law, order and economic development in more pop-ulous areas that will undermine the insurgency's very existence.

Frequent attacks on Charlie Company's combat outposts with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guns show how the terrain is suited to the Taliban's brand of hit-and-run. The copious spring growth of vines and marijuana fields along Kandahar province's Arghandab river, allows insurgents to come within close range of their targets without breaking cover. Since Soviet times, foreign soldiers have unfondly called this ribbon of vegetation the "green hell".

The greenery makes it easy to bury IEDs undetected, Charlie Company commander Capt Reim says. "We have [people] who go out there who look like farmers who could quite easily be Taliban... Everywhere we walk out there could be our last step. Guys are very meticulous on 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 vineyards and blossoming orchards, Taliban bombs alone have killed five soldiers from Charlie Company and injured 20.

Villagers claim that fighters from Waziristan and Swat, in Pakistan, as well as Afghan provinces such as Helmand, are arriving en masse, sleeping rough, 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 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." Too many villagers, US troops and Afghan police and soldiers know in morbid detail the mechanics of these homemade bombs.

A favourite design is wiring an anti-personnel mine to several hand grenades and a jug or two of homemade explosive. The bomb that took off Sgt Andrew Peden's foot in April was along these lines; only this time the mine explosion severed the detonation cord before it could trigger the rest of the ordnance. Both this IED and the one that killed Sgt Ingram were laid just 200 metres from a US base.

Nor are the Taliban limiting themselves to Nato targets. In line with the assassination campaign they are waging against government officials in Kandahar City, they are intimidating villagers in the countryside. At the start of May, two gunmen murdered a respected elder called Haji Abdullah Jan, emptying their Kalashnikovs into his body as he left 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 that the insurgents hand over the murderers – to no avail. "They were very angry when he was killed," a friend of Mr Jan's said. "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 local 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," a tribal elder confided.

With a mission to secure the population and legitimise the Afghan government, and with the focus of the summer's campaign falling on Kandahar City, Nato commanders say they will not be getting bogged down in Kandahar's rural backwaters.

"We're not in the business of conducting an attritional campaign," said Britain's Maj-Gen Nick Carter, the top commander in south-eastern Afghanistan. "What the business we're doing here is about [is] 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."

Out on the fringes, though, the war seems different. Here soldiers measure success in how effectively they are disrupting the Taliban. "To be able to go right into the Taliban's backyard and put an American [combat outpost] in there, and affect everything they do coming in and out of this area, is a huge victory for us," Capt Reim said. "We're in a place that really upsets the Taliban. It drives them crazy that we're sitting where we are."

For Pte Cavin Denney it's simpler still. "If I've still got my legs [when I go home], I'm going to ask for longer ones," he joked after one attack. "Get taller."

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