x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Highway to hell's key role in road to recovery plan

US troops aiming to bring peace to southern Afghanistan are finding it tough to secure a vital artery as the Taliban unleash their arsenal.

SAYADABAD DISTRICT, MAIDAN WARDAK PROVINCE // Stretching out between the hills and plains of southern Afghanistan is Highway One. It runs as far as the eye can see and was meant to be the symbol of a country reborn, unified and connected to the capital city. But after years of deadly guerrilla warfare, the multimillion-dollar road is a pockmarked mess. Huge chunks of it have been ripped up and smashed by insurgent bombs, leaving drivers permanently uncertain of how to negotiate the road or where the next blast will occur.

Now a key struggle for the control of Afghanistan is being fought here. The Second Battalion of the 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, is slowly trying to make its presence felt with a mixture of dialogue and force in the villages lining the route through Maidan Wardak province. Against them are the Taliban, who have become an increasingly viable alternative to the local government. The sides rarely meet face to face. Attacks come as night falls, when the insurgents launch ambushes with small arms or heavy machine guns, then melt back into the darkness. The US forces respond from a distance with superior firepower, sometimes not knowing who or what they are shooting at.

More than anything else, though, the battle for the highway that leads from Kabul to Kandahar and then onto Herat, is being fought underneath its very tarmac. It is there that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are planted, dug deep down with wires leading off into nearby fields or hedgerows where a militant waits to detonate them. Roadside bombs are the insurgents' main weapon and they strike fear into US troops like nothing else. Too many soldiers have had narrow escapes or heard about colleagues being killed for them to feel comfortable in even the most heavily armoured vehicles.

In the district of Sayadabad, a few kilometres south-west of the Afghanistan capital, this is a daily struggle. The same journeys are made routinely, the same local elders and officials visited, the same irrigation channels checked and checked again, all in an effort to keep the Taliban out. It is a largely boring cycle, broken only by moments of extreme violence. Yet the men from 2nd Platoon, Delta Company, know they can never be sure their work is complete. What people say to their face may be different to what they utter behind their backs. And when a section of road is cleared, it might simply be packed with 30kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser again the next morning, set ready to blow.