As some 400 U.S. and Afghan soldiers gather to honor their first fallen comrade, mournful Muslim prayers mingle with the stutter of machine gun fire and the thud of exploding grenades just beyond their heavily fortified camp.
This funeral ceremony will almost certainly be repeated, perhaps many times, as the combined force begins in mid-September to battle some of Afghanistan's most zealous insurgents in arid wastelands and verdant orchards, attempting to root out the Taliban from the place of its birth.
Violence is already a daily staple in Zhari district in the southern province of Kandahar, stage for what commanders call a pivotal campaign to pacify the insurgency's heartland.
Roadside bombs — from 20 to 1,000 pounds (nine to 450 kilograms) — riddle supply convoys on Highway 1, which abuts this forward operating base. Brazen Taliban fighters, edging close to the strategic highway, are gunned down by snipers from the guard towers.
Patrols must gingerly tread their way through the district's two swaths of outwardly gentle orchards and grape fields, dubbed "green monsters" by the troops because they are seeded with homemade explosives. Demarcating the fields are high, thick mud walls that bullets can't penetrate but pierced by narrow slits providing excellent firing positions for secreted insurgents.
The walls remind some history-savvy soldiers of the hedgerows of Normandy during World War II where their unit — the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division — fought with such distinction.
"But we're fighting a people-centric war now, so we can't just drive a tank through these walls," says Capt. David Yu, of Newport News, Virginia, as his armored vehicle crawls cautiously past fields where the grape harvest is under way.
"You can't simulate fighting in the grape fields at Fort Campbell, but the soldiers are flexible and creative in finding solutions to problems," the company commander says.
Such solutions are being explored as the units prepare for the coming fight. Engineers are teaching infantrymen to breach walls with explosive charges. Afghan troops train daily despite having to observe daylong fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Smaller, remote bases across the district are being expanded and furnished with some of the threadbare comforts of combat life, such as basic gym equipment for Americans, and an oven to bake flat bread for the Afghans.
When the assault begins, Lt. Col. Peter N. Benchoff, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who commands the regiment's 2nd Battalion, will have to take the heavily defended village of Singesar, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar founded the movement 16 years ago. He will also have to stem Taliban infiltration and ambushes along Highway 1 and a parallel gravel road while offering development to the dirt-poor area.
Probing by both sides has already sparked sharp clashes. A recent one at Spin Pir, within sight of the base, began in the morning with intense exchanges of fire and ended at dusk with U.S. Apache helicopters performing a lethal aerial ballet — twisting and sweeping across the dark blue sky before raking insurgent positions with rockets and machine gun fire.
Within the same 12-hour period, a supply convoy was ambushed within yards (meters) of the base, and four U.S. soldiers were wounded when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.
"Eventually you get used to the environment, but IEDs, they're always going to be in your head. I try not to think about it, just go day to day and hope it never happens," said Pfc. Richard Anthony Flynn, of Starke, Florida, who took part in the Spin Pir clash.
A few days later, a dozen insurgents ambushed a resupply convoy from the base along Highway 1. The paymaster of the Afghan unit partnered with Benchoff's battalion, Lt. Amir Mohammad, was killed and four others were wounded.
"I challenge everyone in this formation to rededicate themselves to protect the people of Afghanistan in the name of our fallen comrade," Benchoff told the troops assembled for the memorial service under a sky darkened by sand storms.
"We've got a big challenge ahead in the next three weeks," Benchoff commented to reporters. "We're going to increase the tempo. We're going to push the enemy hard, on the flanks and up the center. There's a lot of bravado among the Afghans. They're ready to go."
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