New base beefs up Afghanistan presence
MAIWAND DISTRICT, Afghanistan — U.S. forces are beefing up their presence in southern Afghanistan, building a new base and joining a Canadian task force in an effort to stem a rising tide of violence in the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.
The construction of Forward Operating Base Ramrod, about 50 miles west of Kandahar, the former stronghold of the fundamentalist movement, puts the newly-deployed 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment in an area that has seen a sharp rise in attacks.
"This was a district that has been identified as needing a larger coalition presence," said Maj. Cale Brown, executive officer for 2-2 Infantry, during a recent visit to the new base.
In an unusual arrangement for U.S. forces, 2-2 Infantry has been placed under the command of the Canadian-led Task Force Kandahar. Canada has 2,500 soldiers in the southern province, where it has held overall security responsibility for the past three years.
But the addition of the 800 or so U.S. soldiers nearly doubles the number of combat troops in Task Force Kandahar, said Navy Lt. Alain Blondin, a spokesman for Canadian forces.
"It brings about 70 to 80 percent more in terms of boots on the ground," he said.
The American troops assumed responsibility for their area of operations on Aug. 27. In a statement at the time, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said their mission would be to improve security in the district so that reconstruction and political development can take place.
ISAF officials have identified Maiwand as an important logistics hub for the movement of Taliban fighters, weapons and money.
"It’s been part of a trend that we’re here to help mitigate," Brown said.
Stars and Stripes first reported in early August that 2-2 Infantry was moving into Maiwand district.
The Fort Hood, Texas-based battalion was supposed to deploy to eastern Afghanistan, but was shifted south after the Taliban pulled off a dramatic jailbreak in Kandahar in June, freeing hundreds of imprisoned fighters, according to a U.S. officer.
Insurgent attacks have skyrocketed in Afghanistan in the past three years, especially in the south and east, where the Taliban and al-Qaida are strongest.
Insurgent attacks in Kandahar province have increased since the jailbreak, and have not slowed in September, despite the fact that it is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to Canadian military officers.
During the first 18 days of Ramadan, which began earlier this month, soldiers of Task Force Kandahar have encountered 80 roadside bombs, most of which were detected and neutralized before they exploded, they said.
"It’s been a steady climb (in attacks)," said one officer Thursday, who spoke on background, in accordance with standard briefing rules. "It’s been busy, and the insurgents aren’t slowing down."
More than 120 U.S. troops and more than 100 soldiers from other NATO-led countries have been killed in Afghanistan this year, putting 2008 on track to be the deadliest year for foreign forces in the country since the war began seven years ago. More U.S. troops have already been killed this year than at any other point during the war.
Nearly 600 U.S. troops and almost 400 soldiers from other countries have died in Afghanistan since the start of the war, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks U.S. and allied deaths here and in Iraq.
The strengthening of U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan comes as Canada has signaled that it intends to scale down its commitment, a move which could further worsen the security situation in this part of the country.
Last January, Canada threatened to pull its troops out of Afghanistan unless other NATO countries boosted their commitment, a move that prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to order a Marine battalion to neighboring Helmand province. The Marines have already started pulling out, and have been replaced by British and Afghan troops.
On Sept. 10, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged that his country’s forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2011, saying that the Canadian public would not support keeping its soldiers in the country more than 10 years. A Parliament measure passed in March requires only that Canadian forces be withdrawn from Kandahar province by that date.
Canada was one of the first countries, along with the United States, Great Britain and Australia, to send troops to Afghanistan, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Canada has lost 97 soldiers and one diplomat, the third highest toll in the war, after the United States and the United Kingdom.
There are about 60,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, 33,000 of which are American. About 19,000 are serving under ISAF. Most of the rest are serving under an independent U.S. command in the east.
President Bush has ordered an Army brigade of about 3,700 troops originally scheduled for Iraq to deploy instead to Afghanistan in January.
However, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, the senior general in Afghanistan, has said that about 10,000 more U.S. ground troops are needed in addition those reinforcements.