Afghanistan (Reuters) – Rising smoke and two muted booms bring the first sign of trouble for Lieutenant Laura Jonikaitis’s supply convoy, stalled on a narrow main road in volatile Arghandab district.
“They just popped off right now. It’s a mortar. Someone’s firing a mortar,” driver Jorge Martinez yells into his vehicle headphones. The shells, fired from a mud-walled village in the distance, seem to land nowhere.
But moments later, a far louder boom reverberates as an insurgent rocket grenade, or RPG, explodes near a hulking, mine-proofed vehicle up front, while bullets clank beside Jonikaitis, on doors built strong enough to withstand a roadside bomb.
In the back of her MATV a kind of SUV on steroids — gunner Rodney Reyes swivels a remote-control 50-mm caliber machine gun on the roof and squints at a television screen showing green fields and squat houses in front of him.
“I’m looking. I don’t see anything. We need to go now ma’am. It’s kinda dumb if we’re just sitting here. It’s kind of a big target,” Reyes says.
Jonikaitis has already given orders to move, but the road is blocked as Afghan civilians abandon their trucks and cars on this artery to the main U.S. command post in the area, nervous of an escalating firefight.
“Be advised: These civilians are jumping out of the trucks like roaches,” says Martinez, leaning over to scan up along the road through glass windows several inches thick.
It is another setback for Jonikaitis, 24, whose column of 12 military trucks and three civilian haulers, known as “jingles” to the troops because of the decorative chains that give them their distinctive sound, is already six hours late on its supply run to Combat Outpost Jelawur.
COP Jelawur and several smaller nearby bases are taking the brunt of fighting as 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops prepare for an offensive against Taliban insurgents in their Kandahar province strongholds.
THREATS FROM ALL SIDES
Along the way, delays and threats have come from all sides: an ownerless pushbike with containers on the back holding possible bombs, flocks of sheep and village children giving the finger. A creaking lorry piled high with orange-colored sacks overtakes.
“What’s in those sacks?” asks Jonikaitis.
“Should I fire a round into it ma’am?” asks Reyes, 23, only half-joking.
COP Jelawur and several smaller nearby bases are right now taking the brunt of fighting as 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops prepare for an offensive against Taliban insurgents in their Kandahar province strongholds.
This convoy belongs to the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, which has just arrived in the area as shock troops to choke off two routes used by insurgents to move into Kandahar city from districts to the west.
The brigade is already experiencing heavy fighting against hardcore Taliban fighters that COP Jelawur’s battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel David Flynn, thinks have such skills that some have come from outside Afghanistan.
A sniper killed one of Flynn’s soldiers at a forward post near here with a long-range shot that struck him in the head. Three other soldiers have lost limbs to bombs in recent days, including one who lost both legs.
For Jonikaitis, help arrives in the form of Afghan army troops who flank the road, clear traffic and prepare to hunt the insurgents, one poised behind his own machine gun on an open-back utility wearing a red bandana on his head.
“That guy’s a bad ass,” says Reyes. “You don’t want to get in the way of the Afghan army. They say if those guys start shooting, they just unload everything.”
Another boom sounds through the armored doors. Jonikaitis and her trucks are already moving, picking up speed and hoping to arrive before dark, when the Taliban threat really starts.
(Editing by David Fox and Jonathan Thatcher)