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Friday, July 9, 2010 - 12:54pm

For The U.S., Cat And Mouse In The Taliban Heartland

The American soldiers at Combat Outpost Ashoque, in the Taliban heartland of Afghanistan's Kandahar province, joke that gunfire from the insurgents' AK-47s is their alarm clock.

Sure enough, just after 8 a.m. on Thursday, the alarm went off for a unit of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, based at the small outpost.

Automatic weapons fire rattled. Soldiers jumped from their cots and raced outside, many wearing shorts and flip-flops, together with their helmets and weapons.

Bullets ripped into the sandbags of the guard tower, kicking up puffs of sand. One bullet tore through the plywood covering a window in the command post, showering the room with splinters and then biting a chip from the concrete wall.

Running For Cover

The bullet just missed Capt. Dan Luckett's head. He held a spent AK-47 round, as curved now as a talon.

"This is my round. 'Cause this one had Capt. Luckett written all over it," he said. "I've got pieces of wood from that f - - - - - - thing down my shirt."

Outside, under a camouflage canopy, soldiers ran for cover while others climbed ladders to the guard towers. Still others were on radios calling for air support.

Suddenly, a Kiowa attack helicopter swept in low and fired a rocket toward the Taliban position, leaving a rush of air and a trail of smoke.

The soldiers at the outpost let out a brief cheer, but there was no time to celebrate. The Taliban insurgents resumed their shooting.

The Americans returned fire with heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.

After about 20 minutes, the skirmish was over.

Hunting The Taliban

But that wasn't the end of it. A sergeant ordered the men to put on their combat gear for a patrol to search for evidence of the enemy.

They moved out, headed for a tangle of grapevines where the Taliban like to hide and fire from. Leading the patrol was Capt. Brant Auge, a West Point graduate from Mississippi.

"We will go to where we saw people before, but with the trench lines all they do is keep their heads down and move and you can't see 'em. They're probably going to be gone by the time we get there," he said.

With helicopters buzzing overhead, the troops sidestepped the coils of razor wire that protect the entrance to the outpost. They trudged down a dirt road, just as two farmers ambled toward them.

'Nobody Saw Anything'

Speaking through a translator, the Americans asked the farmers if they saw anyone in the fields. No, the farmers responded.

"Nobody saw anybody, huh?" Auge said. He hears that often, as villagers are wary of the American soldiers.

The soldiers turned from the road and descended into the field, deep into the grapevines, their helmets bobbing up and down like turtles above the vegetation.

They trudged toward a hut, about a quarter-mile into the field. Farmers once used the building to store their harvest. Now it's something of a Taliban fort.

There is talk that these huts are ringed by land mines. Even the farmers now stay away from them.

Lt. Clay Hammer reminded the captain that they should be careful. "How close should we get to it?" he asked.

"Pretty damn close," Auge responded. He was hoping to look inside the hut for any evidence of the attack -- wounded or dead Taliban, a trail of blood, or at least some shell casings.

An Elusive Enemy

As they neared the grape hut, the patrol waded through an irrigation ditch. The hut, one-story tall and made of adobe, had small windows and was as worn as a sand castle.

Its walls were pockmarked with holes by fire from the helicopter attack.

Auge poked his head inside. "I'm going to look through the window to see if we see any shell casings," he said.

But inside there was only hay, and no sign of any Taliban. That's normal, Hammer said.

Auge said that the Taliban probably would have taken any dead or wounded with them. But he added, "I think they take the bodies with them. But they're not going to pick up shell casings or anything like that. So, if we haven't found it, that just tells me that we haven't identified the actual location they were firing from."

Battling In The Grapevines

There have been about nine such attacks in the past six weeks, and it's usually the same drill.

The Taliban use the grapevines and the mud walls as a way to blunt the Americans' sophisticated surveillance and weaponry.

"As soon as they start taking fire, they can get down behind these walls and move all the way from here down to the wadi [gully] line and never be seen," he said.

This time, after nearly two hours of patrolling, no evidence was found. Auge and his men headed back to their outpost, grunting as they climbed over 6-foot-high walls in the vineyards.

Auge knows there will be more Taliban attacks.

"What they want to do is make us scared to come out, where we don't leave the compound," he said.

But the Americans continue to leave the compound on patrols. And for the most part, the Taliban continue to slip away. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]