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."
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