Afghan Checkpoints Key in Battle for Kandahar

In Afghanistan, the drive to push the Taliban out of the country's second-largest city has been called the make-or-break operation of the war.

Special Section: Afghanistan

American-led forces are gearing up for battle in Kandahar but on Tuesday heavily armed insurgents staged their own offensive when they tried to storm the NATO air field outside town, CBS News Correspondent Mandy Clark reports.

With 10,000 fresh American troops taking up positions across Kandahar province, the assault by a handful of Taliban was bold, if doomed.

They chose to attack the largest, most fortified base in the region. At around 10 a.m. insurgents launched a volley of rockets into Kandahar Air Field, injuring two civilians. At the same time, another group tried to shoot their way onto the base. A quick reaction force arrived on the scene, and in the gun battle that followed, six insurgents were killed, including two who were wearing suicide vests.

Before the war, Kandahar was the Taliban's capital. They were defeated here in 2001, but they were never pushed out.

Now, for the first time, American troops are aiming to rid Kandahar of insurgents and warlords. As a first step, Army engineers are building a ring of 13 checkpoints to control every major road in and out of the city.

"You can't just do it all with one checkpoint," said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eli Gerhard of the 864th Engineer Battalion. "That's why there's strategic places they are set up."

Each checkpoint is a huge - and expensive - project. One cost more than a million dollars, and it takes time and money to get permission to use the land

"You come in, you start building and then the owners or the government comes in, it causes a lot of headaches," Gerhard said.

The checkpoints are designed to keep traffic moving while making sure that no guns, drugs or insurgents get through.

It's the Afghan cops that do the searching, but there's always an American soldier nearby, keeping a very close eye.

The Afghan police are notorious for using checkpoints as toll booths, where drivers are forced to pay a bribe. Army Capt. John Thomas of the 82nd Airborne Division and his men are at one checkpoint to make sure that doesn't happen, but they prefer to let the Afghan police do most of the talking.

"They know everybody in this area," said Thomas. "If you want something done, they know exactly who to talk to. They know exactly how this area wants to be treated."

Putting american soldiers in close, constant contact with the civilian population is dangerous, and Thomas never wants his men to forget it.

"Always going to be nervous," said Thomas. "But I think you just use that to keep sharp and make sure that everybody's focused on what they need to be focused on."

Right now the focus is on Afghan cops. The success of this operation - and of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan - depends on their ability to take over and keep the peace.