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Kandahar: Taliban’s birthplace, Afghanistan’s crucible
ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan
With President Barack Obama poised to announce on Tuesday a surge of additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan, U.S. and Canadian forces stationed in the south of the country are anticipating reinforcements to help them secure the crucial city of Kandahar and turn the tide against rebels in this longtime Taliban stronghold.
U.S. soldiers and Afghan government troops established several outposts in villages southwest of Kandahar in recent weeks, moving into Ashoque in Zhari district, west of the provincial capital. Canadian and Afghan troops took control of Hajji Baba and Nakhonay in neighboring Panjwayi district, to the southeast.
With the seizure of the villages and the setting up of small bases where they will patrol alongside Afghan troops and police, U.S. and Canadian forces seek to consolidate control over several key routes into Kandahar, which NATO-led forces consider the most important strategic prize in southern Afghanistan.
Although the soldiers found a number of Taliban bombs and bomb-making materials, they met with virtually no resistance, and there were no U.S. or Canadian casualties, according to U.S. and Canadian officers. In Ashoque, an Afghan soldier lost both legs in land mine explosion, and several low-level Taliban figures were captured, U.S. officers said.
By taking control of Hajji Baba and Nakhonay, Canadian forces hope to expand a small security zone they created last summer on the southern fringes of the provincial capital when they poured troops, along with small-scale development projects, into the villages of Deh-e-Bagh and Balanday, in nearby Dand district.
Both villages were formerly Taliban strongholds, but the constant presence of Canadian and Afghan forces, along with the hiring of more than 500 local men to clear irrigation canals and improve a local road, has already led to a significant reduction in Taliban attacks in the area, a Canadian officer said.
“It’s not completely secure, but it’s a very permissive area,” said Maj. Darcy Wright, acting deputy commander of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battle group. “It’s been months since we’ve seen IEDs in Balanday.”
U.S. forces in neighboring Zhari district, to the northwest, are hoping to duplicate those results. Until recently, soldiers with 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment focused on clearing operations and targeting mid- to low-level Taliban commanders. But in October, the battalion moved soldiers into a small Afghan base in the village of Senjaray, along Highway 1, and last week, they moved soldiers into another Afghan outpost in Ashoque, also along the route.
“Until now, we’ve been leaning on our strengths, which is targeting,” said Maj. Corey Brown, executive officer of the Fort Carson, Colo.-based battalion. “But now, we’re trying to get in with the population, which is the way to win this war.”
Canadian troops suffered some of their worst losses in Zhari until they handed the district off to U.S. troops in September.
Even though the U.S. presence in Zhari is now much larger — about 750 Americans compared to 150 Canadians previously — U.S. forces have not had an easier time than their predecessors.
Since they took over the district, six soldiers from 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry have been killed and about 40 others wounded, mostly from Taliban bombs. The latest losses occurred last week, when one soldier died and six others were wounded during a mortar attack on the battalion’s main base.
Still, U.S. officers say there are signs that security is improving. Firefights with small groups of Taliban fighters occur almost daily, but bomb attacks along Highway 1 have been on the decline, dropping from 27 in October to just four in the past month, an indication that boosting the number of U.S. and Afghan forces along the highway has paid off.
Despite the frequent combat in the countryside, encounters with villagers are often positive, U.S. officers say.
“There hasn’t been a place where we’ve gone yet where people have told us that they don’t want us to secure them,” Brown said. “They’re tired of the Taliban.”
But U.S. officers also acknowledge that it’s possible local villagers are telling U.S. forces what they believe the Americans want to hear. The area has been a Taliban stronghold since the start of the movement. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader now believed to be hiding in Karachi, Pakistan, got his start as a religious teacher and political leader in the nearby village of Sangasar. Canadian forces have long referred to Zhari and Panjwayi districts as the “heart of darkness.”
However, senior U.S. officers say they are confident that with the sustained presence of U.S. troops and Afghan security forces, those villagers will eventually come to their side.
“We don’t like to say hearts and minds; we like to say trust and confidence,” said Lt. Col. Reik Andersen, commander of 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. “And if we have the trust and confidence of the people, then eventually they will turn the Taliban over.”