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By SEBASTIAN ABBOT
LAKO KHEL, Afghanistan — U.S. soldiers had just made it through a dense patch of vineyards to a cluster of abandoned mud compounds when the radio operator let out a shout: "Sir, we are about to be ambushed from three different locations!"
The men rushed for cover, dodging a potential attack and cursing Kandahar province's tough terrain, which is tailor-made for the Taliban. The deadly obstacle course may haunt thousands of additional U.S. troops pouring into this corner of southern Afghanistan for what is expected to be the make-or-break offensive of the nearly 9-year-old war.
The fields, snaking canals and bomb-laden dirt roads in key districts around the provincial capital, Kandahar City, force soldiers out of their heavily armored vehicles into a landscape dotted with towering mud compounds that provide militants with ideal cover.
Finding a way to overcome this terrain will be key to this summer's military operation in Kandahar, where at least 15 coalition soldiers have died since the beginning of the year, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.
The Marines who invaded the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah in Helmand province in February also faced somewhat challenging terrain since the area contained a network of canals that slowed their progress. But the poppy fields around Marjah were flat and were not surrounded by tall mud walls — unlike the vineyards around Kandahar that are used to produce raisins.
"The agriculture and infrastructure of this country seem like they were designed specifically for guerrilla warfare," Lt. Scott Doyle said at the beginning of his platoon's recent patrol in the heart of Taliban country in Zhari district.
Their experience over the next three hours would provide a snapshot of what battle will look like for many troops in Kandahar.
Within minutes of leaving their rugged outpost in the village of Lako Khel, the soldiers intercepted radio chatter indicating the Taliban were monitoring their movements.
Doyle ordered his men to halt in one of the area's many vineyards, which contain rows of dirt mounds up to 6 feet high.
The tall mud walls that often encircle the vineyards provide good cover for the soldiers but also make it easier for the Taliban to sneak around undetected.
The troops, part of the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, questioned a pair of teenagers lingering in a nearby field.
One of them, 18-year-old Abdul Manan, gave the troops from 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company some information.
"Once you go past that farm to the east, there are lots of Taliban and one of them has a radio," Manan said.
But trying to discern friend from foe in this war is exceedingly difficult, especially in an area like Zhari where Taliban leader Mullah Omar first established the militant group in the 1990s.
"Unfortunately the Taliban use kids as spotters," said Doyle, a 38-year-old from Charlottesville, Va. "Even during firefights, they will send kids out to spot our positions."
Suddenly, the platoon leader's radio operator, Spc. Arthur Harris, called out that the Taliban had instructed one of their fighters to "prepare the rocket."
The platoon had taken rocket fire farther north the day before, so Doyle decided to get his men moving.
As the group approached a cluster of abandoned mud compounds, Harris ran up to Doyle and yelled that they were facing an imminent ambush.
Doyle sent his men in all four directions to seek cover behind mud walls and set up a defensive perimeter. But their location was vulner- able, with 15-foot-high compounds to the south and west cutting off all visibility. The line of sight wasn't much better to the north and east, with small fields leading to walls that stopped visibility after about 30 feet.
After waiting 10 minutes, Doyle decided to move his men to the south to avoid the ambushes the Taliban said they had set up to the east.
Soon after the soldiers crouched down and bounded 65 feet across an open space to the cover of a wall surrounding a large field, relieved at having made it out of the tangled web of fields and compounds without stumbling into a Taliban ambush.