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U.S. targets terrorists, poppies in rugged Afghan terrain

Operation aims to squeeze Taliban, win villagers' support

By Brent Sadler

Brent Sadler
CNN's Brent Sadler was floored by a stomach virus that also has stricken many U.S. troops in Afghanistan.


In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.


ZABOL PROVINCE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- With senses on full alert, Col. Frank Sturek heads out on a risky mission in southern Afghanistan's Zabol province.

"It's looks like Arizona, and it can feel like the Wild West out here," says Sturek, describing the region's flat desert and high mountains.

He is taking his soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Polk, Louisiana, to a rugged and remote part of the territory, a traditional sanctuary for Taliban fighters where clashes have risen dramatically in the past few weeks.

An illicit harvest of poppies has recently filled the pockets of drug barons, criminals and extremists. It is helping to refuel an insurgency that has put the almost forgotten war of Afghanistan back on the map of international interest.

"Young Taliban fighters who participated in the harvesting are moving to work for Taliban commanders in trying to interdict coalition forces and Afghan national army forces," Sturek says.

Fields of poppies stand tall, their bulbous heads bearing the telltale scratches of the laborious work that's gone into extracting a gummy raw substance that eventually yields opium, the main ingredient for heroin.

Sturek seems to be having a tough day. He apparently has a lot on his mind, and his radio is crackling with fresh reports of Taliban activity.

"They're out here and we've got to show them that we intend to control this territory," he says with grim determination. "Whatever that takes."

It's difficult to see much through the thick, armored glass of the Humvee because the dust is so dense it swallows the convoy at times. We move at a snail's pace over a rock-strewn route that passes for a road.

At several stages, the pathway turns into a river, and we drive through it, upstream. I have a bad feeling, too, especially at sunset, that maybe an ambush or roadside bomb is waiting around the next rocky outcrop.

"We've got our big .50-caliber machine guns," Sturek says reassuringly.

Soldiers often have another ordeal to contend with, suffering bouts of crippling stomach illness. They get it from dirt or flies. I found out for myself when it knocked me flat for two feverish days.

U.S. troops want the tough mountain people to help track Taliban movements to prevent them mounting deadly attacks. It's not an easy task in the Arghandab Valley, where the militants enjoy a lot of support.

A grizzled man was minding his own business when a staff sergeant started to question him politely through an Afghan interpreter.

"Ask him how come that every time Americans come to this valley we get shot at," the sergeant says.

The interviewee gives a friendly smile and is talkative but ultimately evasive. The sergeant walks off in a huff.

"The enemy in this area is probably trying to do the same thing," says Capt. Chris Wilkinson, the point man on this mission to undermine Taliban support. "We know that one of the things they do is try to tell the people that they are in control in this area."

But U.S. military commanders warn that those circumstances are set to change as the operation gears up. We watch a U.S. Air Force C-130 swoop low into the disputed valley, dropping supplies with the aim to help operations squeeze the Taliban and drain their support network.

The Taliban are not far away and from the cover of darkness launch an attack drawing U.S. and Afghan troops into a firefight. It was so intense that a U.S. Air Force A-10 gave close air support, saturating the ground with fire, ending combat with the bloodcurdling growl of its heavy 30 mm rotary cannon.

After the battle, Wilkinson addresses a group of village elders in an assuring tone. "We do not take your food, and we do not shoot at you. We do everything we can to make sure you are safe," he says.

It is not easy selling that message, especially when recent U.S. attacks have claimed some civilian lives. The village elders lost one of their own in the most recent fighting.

But the American visitors have another card to play. They have brought the district chief with them, Ismat Tula Morfadi, the first Kabul government-appointed official to visit the Arghandab Valley in decades.

The district chief makes his pitch over relaxing cups of tea, offering security and social aid in exchange for undisputed loyalty. But the elders are nervous because the Taliban kill collaborators. They will need more convincing and more incentives.

Wilkinson dives in to help convince the dubious group.

"If you help the Taliban because you are scared and you help us for hope of your future, then over time you will see who is better," he argues.

America's Afghan battles are fought on the ground and from the air, but it is in the villages, say military commanders, that the war will be won.

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