COMBAT OUTPOST SANGESAR, Afghanistan — The Afghan National Army has its work cut out for it here: to maintain a fragile peace in a town sympathetic to the Taliban.
An outpost with more psychological than strategic value, Sangesar is hometown to Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
U.S. and Afghan forces say controlling the village remains vital for success in the region.
In a December ceremony with none of the fanfare usually befitting a historic occasion, the U.S. Army handed over security operations in Sangesar to the ANA.
The handover was emblematic of how victory is defined in a counterinsurgency, where success is rarely measured by battles or offensives, but by incremental gains: a school built, a road opened, a rural village that establishes a police force.
“We fought together, we bled together, and we pushed the enemy out of here,” Lt. Col. Greg Harkins, commander of 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said.
After assuming command, ANA commander Col. Kandahari Rasol Khan spoke to U.S. and Afghan soldiers.
“We’ll never forget our friendship. American soldiers have given their lives, and that’s a sacrifice we’ll never forget,” he said through a translator. “The ANA will never let the enemy come back.”
Sangesar is home to the mosque where Omar began preaching his fundamental interpretation of Islam and where the Taliban began its campaign.
In early 1994, Omar and a handful of followers hanged a local warlord from a tank barrel for kidnapping and raping two women.
From Sangesar the Taliban movement spread to Kandahar City where thousands of fighters, many of whom were schooled in Pakistani madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, arrived to fortify the fledgling militia.
In September 1996, the Taliban took Kabul, and Omar became the de facto leader of Afghanistan.
Sangesar remained under Taliban control until 2010, when elements of 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division seized control during the surge.
Following the handover to Afghan forces, District Gov. Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi traveled to Sangesar and spoke with locals about the future of the village.
As he met with elders, the governor said he understood that many in attendance were former Taliban, even recognizing some as cousins and extended family of Omar.
At least one man was an open supporter of the Taliban, and while his defiant remarks seemed to have little effect on the governor, they created an unmistakable tension among the elders.
It’s time, Sarhadi said, for the Taliban to come back into the fold, to support the government and encourage their sons to join the local police. He also called for unity among the tribes of Afghanistan.
“This is the time for peace,” he said. “We have to take care of each other.”
Sarhadi then called for the education of all Afghan children.
“If you have sons and daughters, let them be educated. Whether male or female, they have the right to learn. The Quran teaches that education is for everyone.”
Some 20 females attend school in Sangesar, something unimaginable before the war.
While U.S. forces are confident the Afghans can hold Sangesar, they don’t expect it to be easy.
“There are still going to be Taliban sympathies in the town,” Harkins said.
“It doesn’t mean the war is over in Sangesar; it’s going to be a day-by-day battle. That portion of Zhari is definitely something that [the Taliban] will want back.”