On the ground in Afghanistan, U.S. drawdown is distant

PANJWAI DISTRICT, Afghanistan Thu Jun 23, 2011 1:15am IST

US army soldiers from Charlie company 4th platoon,1st brigade 3-21 infantry, patrol in the village of Chariagen in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan June 22 , 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

US army soldiers from Charlie company 4th platoon,1st brigade 3-21 infantry, patrol in the village of Chariagen in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan June 22 , 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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PANJWAI DISTRICT, Afghanistan (Reuters) U.S. Lieutenant Jonathan Austin's men spent Wednesday as they expect to spend the best part of a year -- patrolling grape orchards in the blazing desert sun, scrambling over mud walls and scanning the paths of Chariagen village for homemade bombs.

Word had not filtered down to their outpost in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province that U.S. President Barack Obama had chosen that evening to announce his plans for starting to bring home U.S. troops.

Obama will announce in a televised address his plan to begin pulling some of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July, a first step toward ending a long, costly war.

But for the men charged with the tough daily grind of fighting on the frontline of the near decade-long war in Afghanistan, the big decision will have little impact.

"It won't change our job any," Austin said with a shrug, after he was told about the speech, which will not be broadcast live in Sperwan Ghar and anyway occurs around 4.00 a.m. local time when the only soldiers awake would be on duty.

"We've still got a year of fighting here."

Analysts expect the soldiers who make up most of the initial drawdown will be engineers and logistics corps who supported the 30,000-strong surge Obama ordered in 2009, with most combat troops left to fight.

There are fears though that if Obama cuts the number of soldiers too far and too fast, gains made over the last year in the Taliban's southern heartland could dissipate.

Panjwai district, where Austin's men are based, is one of the areas that had become a deadly Taliban stronghold until surge troops swept through in the autumn.

Now it is peaceful enough that Austin's three-hour patrol passed with no shots fired, but it is still far from pacified.

A bomb planted in a wall exploded between him and another soldier just a couple of weeks into his tour.

"We are already pretty thinly spread," said Lieutenant Dave Ricardo, also operating out of Sperwan Ghar.

And a multitude of small frustrations the patrol faced in a single afternoon were a reminder of the challenges of fighting battle-hardened insurgents who can melt into the population.

BARBER'S OR INSURGENT BASE?

In one of the area's mud structures used for drying grapes scattered across vineyards, the patrol found a man giving his two cousins haircuts, and some bundles of wood and straw.

Two weeks earlier, the hut had been pinpointed as the location of Taliban gunmen who attacked the same platoon.

"I promise that nobody will attack your group from here," said one of the men, Tajmandad, when Austin tried to question him about village dynamics and the drying hut attack.

The platoon then prepared to go and fight a group of "armed Taliban" spotted on a nearby road, until they were identified as out-of-uniform policemen. The men in the grapehut started complaining about the police as well.

The start of the U.S. withdrawal will coincide with the start to a slow handover to the Afghan army and police, which should put local forces in control nationwide by end-2014.

NATO is organizing intensive training to boost numbers and tackle long-standing problems including corruption and high attrition rates,. Progress has been steady but slow.

The problems have convinced some U.S. soldiers that the United States, now negotiating a deal that will outline the long-term presence, will not leave entirely for a long time.

"U.S. troops will be here for years," said Sergeant First Class David Lampman. "Look at Germany and Japan; there are still troops there and the second World War ended over 60 years ago."

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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