OUTPOST NOLEN | Tue Jul 27, 2010 9:57pm EDT
OUTPOST NOLEN Afghanistan (Reuters) - Elite U.S. special forces soldiers are relieving insurgent pressure on American outposts in the volatile Arghandab Valley with a series of night attacks on suspected Taliban hideouts.
The raids, backed by a "Spectre" C-130 gunship and Afghan commandos, began four days ago in the village of Khosrow Sofla, and followed weeks of near-daily attacks by insurgents on American bases near the town of Jelawar.
"We considered it an area of Taliban sanctuary, or at least of tacit or semi-permissive support," said U.S. Army Major Brendan Raymond, of Woodbridge, Virginia.
Last month, the U.S. military said special operations forces in Afghanistan had nearly tripled over the last year and that Afghan authorities were increasingly involved in their missions.
U.S. special forces have also set up local defense forces in Arghandab, where armed villagers are trained and mentored to protect their own villages.
The scheme is controversial, with critics saying it amounts to forming local militias separate to government forces, but U.S. commanders on the ground say it deters the flow of insurgents into their areas.
The Arghandab river valley is an important infiltration route used by the Taliban to attack U.S. forces and smuggle weapons and men a few miles east to Kandahar city.
U.S. troops are launching a series of operations in Arghandab and other districts around Kandahar in a bid to drive the insurgents out of their spiritual heartland.
The militants in Arghandab, however, are tying up a brigade of U.S. troops with mines and hit-and-run attacks launched from thick cover in ripening grape and pomegranate plantations.
BIRTHPLACE OF THE TALIBAN
The area is the birthplace of the Taliban and insurgents have taken a heavy toll on U.S. soldiers in outlying combat bases, with many maimed by buried mines and bombs, and several armored vehicles destroyed in recent days.
During one night operation, U.S. troops belonging to the 101st Airborne Division observed an insurgent laying a roadside bomb and tracked him to his home. The house was raided and bomb-making materials seized.
Another attack killed and wounded a "large number" of Taliban who fled to a canal and came under C-130 fire while sheltering there, easing pressure on Combat Outpost Nolen, which has experienced frequent mine and rocket grenade attacks.
One assault involved Afghan commandos under the guidance of U.S. special operations soldiers. One Afghan died in the attack and several U.S. and Afghan troops were wounded after their helicopter landed in a site daisy-chained by IEDs.
American planners believe 40 to 50 hardcore insurgents are concentrating their efforts on Outpost Nolen, which Raymond said had become a "big shining ball" for the Taliban. They are less clear on the reasons why.
The area around the base has become no-man's-land, with fighters moving into the farming area from nearby towns to engage U.S. and Afghan National Army forces inside, battalion commander Lt.-Col. David Flynn said.
Smaller villages are, or appear, almost deserted by local families fleeing the fighting and leaving cash-producing grape crops to wither on vines. Coalition forces are keen to secure access to the fields for the locals to win their support.
U.S. troops in the valley hope ultimately to encourage between 57,000 and 100,000 villagers to turn against the Taliban and back district and provincial leaders friendly to President Hamid Karzai's government and coalition forces.
But surrounding fields and roads have also been seeded heavily with mines, with several loud blasts heard at night believed to be accidental explosions as insurgents try to lay more IEDs for U.S. patrols.
"They probably just want us to leave," said one junior officer at Nolen who asked not to be identified. "But it has been quieter the last few nights since the special forces started up."