JELEWAR, Afghanistan — The man in the brown robe was digging in the desert sand. He was accompanied by three teenage boys and a donkey pulling a wooden cart.
Was he scooping up sand to help make cement? Or was he trying to bury a roadside bomb?
The soldiers in this Stryker armored vehicle convoy from the 5th Brigade of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., stopped to investigate.
This was one more imponderable among so many as these soldiers patrolled a vast area of the Argandab River valley, which is a stronghold of the resurgent Taliban. Many patrols are an uneasy mix of trying to build bridges with villagers and fighting Taliban guerrillas who've taken refuge in the irrigated orchards that straddle the river.
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There have been plenty of firefights, but IEDs — improvised explosive devices — buried in roadways and in footpaths trod by U.S. and Afghan soliders have been the most pervasive threat in the more than two months since the 5th Brigade arrived in southern Afghanistan.
Bravo Company, a unit of about 150 soliders, is part of the the brigade's 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment. This battalion has one the toughest assignments in Afghanistan as it tries to improve security in the river valley that's a staging ground for the Taliban. From this area, they infiltrate east into Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban.
Since it arrived in the summer, the battalion has lost 10 men, most of them to IED blasts that have struck both vehicles and foot soldiers. The IEDs are so pervasive that the soldiers approach their base here through different routes that traverse the desert rather than stick to the road.
I joined Bravo Company over the weekend, and on Sunday spent a long day meeting with military, police and elders in a string of villages along the valley. All along the route, the convoy of Strykers stopped to check culverts and other locations for IEDs.
We spotted the diggers and their donkey at sunset, as we neared our base, Strong Point-Jelewar.
The soldiers piled out of the vehicles and circled the four Afghans. It was prayer time, and the man in the brown robe said they needed to leave to worship.
The soldiers had heard intelligence reports of an uncle and three nephews who'd formed an IED cell. They noted a spot that seemed as if it had been freshly dug and tamped over with footprints.
Capt. Jamie Pope, Bravo Company's commander, tried to get the Afghans to dig in that area, but they were reluctant.
"This guy is digging right next to a major road where the have been previous IED blasts. They say they're from village two or three kilometers away, so why are they coming all the way over here for sand?" Pope asked.
A decision was made to fingerprint and take iris scans of all four men with a computerized system called HIDE, or Hand-Held Interagency Identity Detection Equipment. That way, if their fingerprints were ever found on a roadside bomb, soldiers would know where to look for the culprit.
It took nearly two hours to enter all the data into the system. As darkness fell on the lonely expanse of desert, we loaded back into the convoy to return to Strong Point-Jelewar.
(Bernton reports for the Seattle Times.)