U.S. and Afghan forces are fighting to gain control of a major crossroads in a part of Afghanistan that has seen so few NATO troops that one village elder mistook the Americans for Russians — from the long-ago Soviet war.
"It's an absolutely crucial area," says NPR photographer David Gilkey, who has been embedded with U.S. troops involved in the offensive in eastern Afghanistan's Ghazni province.
"It's gorgeous," Gilkey tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne. "It's a valley, and it sort of reminds me of the high desert area in Arizona. That said, it's also quite dangerous. It's where Highway 1 runs from Kabul to Kandahar. It is the key road that runs north to south."
Gilkey spent some 10 days with the 82nd Airborne, as soldiers mounted patrols from a forward operating base called Giro.
"This is the first time that anybody has been out in the little hamlets and villages in years," Gilkey says. "And pretty much every time we went on a patrol, we were getting shot at."
In fact, he was with a patrol when it was engaged in a firefight, with bullets whizzing past — their sounds were caught on Gilkey's recording equipment.
"On the way back, the guys were talking: 'We're gonna get shot at,' " he says. "And sure enough, within about 10 minutes, the shooting started."
The American group did not sustain any casualties on that patrol, Gilkey says. During the conflict, the U.S. soldiers and trainers urged their Afghan counterparts to be patient in the face of the gunfire. They're also trying to instill more planning in the Afghans' operations, Gilkey says.
"And that's where it gets a little tricky," he adds. "It's easy to go out there and get shot at. It's another thing to bring everybody back safely — and have accomplished the mission."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
U.S. and Afghan forces are fighting to take over one of the major crossroads in Afghanistan. It's an area that has seen so few NATO troops that one village elder mistook the Americans for Russians from that long-ago Soviet war. The new operation is expected to be the last big offensive to chase the Taliban from key strategic positions before American troops leave.
We followed one patrol yesterday that ended peacefully. Today, we'll hear about a firefight, part of the same operation a short ways away. NPR photographer David Gilkey was there, and joins us now to describe what he saw. Good morning, David.
DAVID GILKEY, BYLINE: Hey, Renee. How are you?
MONTAGNE: I'm doing pretty well, and would like to ask you about this mission. It's in Ghazni Province, in eastern Afghanistan. Tell us about the place - and why it's so important.
GILKEY: Well, I mean, it's not that far from Kabul. It sits about three hours, if you were able to drive there. It's actually gorgeous. It's a valley, and it sort of reminds me of the high desert areas in Arizona.
That said, it's also quite dangerous. And it's where Highway 1 runs from Kabul to Kandahar. It is the key road that runs north to south. And what connects to that are the roads that come in from Pakistan. So it's an absolutely crucial area of people and weapons - usually, illegal - being moved within the country.
MONTAGNE: So you were embedded with U.S. troops there.
GILKEY: Yeah. I've spent - sort of the last 10 days, two weeks, with the 82nd Airborne. And they're at a little, tiny outpost called Giro. This was formerly occupied by Polish troops but they really, never left the base. And so this is the first time that anybody has been out into the little hamlets and villages, in years. And pretty much every time we went on a patrol, we were getting shot at.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
GILKEY: So every time I go out on a patrol, I'm not only taking pictures, but I strapped a recorder to my helmet. So you'll hear both the camera shutter and the gunfire going off.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where are you running to?
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
MONTAGNE: Tell us what we need to know.
GILKEY: Well, we headed out - what was to be an average patrol. And what happens is, they go into the little villages, and they try to collect as much intel as they can on what's going on in the area. So on the way back, the guys were talking: We're gonna get shot at. And sure enough, within about 10 minutes, the shooting started.
MONTAGNE: David, that sounds quite intense. Which side won in this particular battle?
GILKEY: That's the thing - is, nobody really wins. One of the things that was interesting to watch is the Americans and the American trainers, the guys from the 82nd, trying to get the Afghans to exercise some patience - which is difficult to do, considering what you just heard.
MONTAGNE: Well, that gets us to the fact that the Afghan National Army is expected to take over the lead in these fights, in the months to come and obviously, to take the lead in security, generally, when international forces are drawn down and gone. How did they hold up during this firefight, and were there a lot of casualties?
GILKEY: You never know if there's casualties. Of course, you know if there's casualties on the side you're with. So we did not sustain any that day. You know, I think all of the guys from the 82nd Airborne, I think, respect immensely the ability of the Afghans to fight. Any time a bullet is fired, they're the first ones over the wall - to the point of it being dangerous - and sometimes even running in front of the Americans who are supporting the fire behind them.
The harder part is - and at least, what I saw - is they're trying to get them to actually plan these missions. And that's where it gets a little tricky. It's easy to go out there and get shot at. It's another thing to bring everybody back safely and have accomplished the mission.
MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.
GILKEY: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR photographer David Gilkey, who's been embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division, speaking to us from Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.