By Jonathon Burch
KUHAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - As U.S. soldiers from Alpha Company stepped out of their outpost on a scorching July morning in Arghandab in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province, an all too familiar sound rang through the air.
"Can you hear that? They're blowing their horns again," one soldier shouts down the line.
It is a sound the U.S. soldiers have become accustomed to nearly every time they go out on patrol -- insurgents sounding their car and motorcycle horns, warning each other the Americans are on the move.
A couple of hours into the patrol and the even more familiar crack of gunfire breaks the mundane silence. The soldiers dive for cover, bullets whistling past their heads, as they work out where the shots are coming from.
"Flank it 1 Alpha!" Sergeant Jonathan Garcia screams at his soldiers up ahead before firing off a couple rounds over the low mudbrick wall.
As the soldiers maneuver forward, the insurgents -- probably no more than three or four men -- lose heart and disappear into the thick vegetation.
Apart from one Afghan soldier who takes a bullet through his leg and is airlifted to safety, the battle passes without incident and finishes as quickly as it started. This is Kuhak, a small village nestled inside the pomegranate orchards of Afghanistan's Arghandab valley, only miles outside Kandahar city.
It is a scene the soldiers from Alpha Company, 2-508th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, are getting all too used to since they moved into the area in December.
Homemade bombs and gunbattles are now an almost daily occurrence. In the last week alone, the men at Kuhak have come under fire five times.
GATEWAY TO CITY
The reason the insurgents are putting up a tough fight in Arghandab is because the district forms a gateway to Kandahar from the north and the militants do not want to give that up.
With only around 2,500 Canadian troops patrolling the entire province until last year, the Taliban, for years had virtual free reign around Kandahar. When U.S. troops arrived there in Spring 2009, they disturbed something of a hornets' nest.
A U.S. Stryker Brigade that first moved in suffered heavy losses early into its deployment. More than 20 soldiers were killed and many more wounded, most by homemade bombs.
Recognizing the province was neglected for too long, military commanders have now shifted focus from neighboring Helmand to Kandahar, in a bid to drive the insurgency from its heartland strongholds.
Instead of launching a massive offensive as in Helmand earlier this year, however, commanders are talking of bringing a slow wave of security to the area with alongside more effective government and backed up with economic development.
At the battalion headquarters perched on a hill overlooking the valley, a line of bearded men wait to see the district governor, who shares his compound with the U.S. troops.
Chris Harich, from the U.S. State Department, who has been in the district center since November as part of Washington's civilian "surge," said more villagers were now coming to enquire about development projects, but also to complain about security.
WALKING THE LINE
With all the talk of governance and development, for the young soldiers at Kuhak it is just another day and another gunfight.
The men from Alpha Company rarely see who they are fighting and if they eventually do catch up to them, the insurgents have hidden their weapons and melted back into the population.
"It gets really frustrating trying to walk the line between a counter-insurgency fight and not harming the populace and trying to kill the enemy," said Platoon Commander Staff Sgt. Aaron Best.
Best, a bright 28-year-old on his second Afghanistan tour, understands the counter-insurgency message coming down from commanders, but that does not stem platoon level frustration.
"In 2007 I was getting blown up and shot at. I come back now and guess what, I'm getting blown up and shot at. Nothing's changed," he said.
(Editing by David Fox)