The helicopters arrive first, landing platoons to block escape routes into the Sur Ghar Mountains. Then come the armored fighting vehicles — Strykers and M-ATVs — grinding over miles of rocky hills. It's the start of a joint operation involving the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment and the Afghan National Army, or ANA.
The locals call this region Ludeenan. To the Americans, it's the Flamingo Corridor, named for the nearest major road, Route Flamingo. It's a staging area for Taliban activity in Zabul Province, and a serious threat to traffic on Afghanistan's Highway 1.
Capt. John McAdams, of Conroe, Texas, is commander of Blackjack Troop with 2-1 CAV.
"Highway 1 is the biggest and best road in the country, and it's really, I guess, their equivalent of our Interstate System. All of the trade that goes on in Afghanistan from province to province, the only practical way to do it is on Highway 1."
The Taliban regularly spike the highway with IEDs. Two-One CAV's aim is to cut off those attacks at the source. The plan: go into each village in the Flamingo Corridor, sweep up the bomb makers, and destroy their arsenals.
“Jack 5, Jack 6. Over.”
Catching the Taliban out proves the hard part.
"Standing on top of the hill, you could see how far away we were coming from, and even though we had blocking positions in, I mean, you can see there's a million places where you could drive a motorcycle here. And there were several reports of motorcycles driving out of these villages before we got here."
The hunt for hidden arms caches proves more successful than anyone dared hope. The first big find, near the village of Hoteko, includes over 100 lbs. of homemade explosives and explosive-grade chemicals. The heroes of the hour are the ANA's explosive ordinance disposal team.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Chizek, of Central Texas, is also with Blackjack Troop.
"Over the last seven months that we've been here, the ANA EOD has done nothing but prove their capabilities, finding the explosives. They've found multiple IEDs with us, and they continue to show their capabilities without us here."
There's only one safe thing to do with the explosives — blow them up in place.
Outside the village of Abdulqader Kalay, U.S. and Afghan forces chase a suspected Taliban spotter until he disappears down a karez, a system of wells linked by underground tunnels.
Sgt. Miguel Diaz is with Aztec Company, 2-1 CAV.
"We followed the karez system on the surface all the way to the adjacent village. And then on the adjacent village, the ANA kept searching, and we ended up finding all kinds of explosive materials, DFCs [directional fragmentation charges], all kinds of stuff."
This time, it’s over 150 lbs.
This goes on until darkness forces a halt to operations. But the next day yields the mother lode, hidden in a dry karez outside an abandoned village. Soldiers haul up eight bags of chemical fertilizer and five IEDs. It's likely far more remains buried. And that's not all. The village itself proves littered with explosives. Again, Capt. John McAdams.
"That whole ruin is just one giant weapons cache."
The operation hasn't been perfect. It highlights the Afghan forces still have serious supply problems. To keep them going into the second day, 2-1 CAV has to provide them with fuel and food.
But the mission has achieved its main objective. The final tally: over a ton and a half of IEDs and explosive chemicals destroyed — enough to supply Taliban operations here for the entire fighting season.
From Zabul Province, Andrew Schneider, KUHF News.
U.S. Army photo courtesy of Spc. Tim Morgan
Tomorrow, Andrew Schneider speaks with the surviving members of a provincial reconstruction team, who lost six of their colleagues to an IED attack in the Afghan City of Qalat, in the final installment of Winding Down the War.