Preparations for Kandahar offensive continue with wary locals
SHUYENE WUSA, Afghanistan — The local mullah was angry. Despite his warm welcome earlier in the day, he insisted that U.S. and Afghan forces could not stay in his village overnight.
“You don’t need to be here. I’ve already told you that security is good,” Hashim Maulawi told Capt. Jimmy Razuri, commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “But since you don’t believe me, I’m not coming to the shura tomorrow.”
Keen not to antagonize the old man further, Razuri ordered his men and the Afghan forces with them to pack up and go. They spent the night at a compound on the outskirts.
It was wise to keep the mullah happy. The district governor was coming the next morning. It would be the first time an Afghan official would visit Shuyene Wusa in nine years, and a crucial first step in re-establishing government authority over the village. If the religious leader refused to attend, other elders would likely stay away, too, and the troops’ mission would fail.
As coalition forces prepare for a large offensive in Kandahar this summer, much of the groundwork is being laid in the Arghandab valley and other outlying districts where U.S. soldiers and other forces are working to wrest control from shadowy networks of Taliban guerrillas and reconnect villagers with the provincial government.
U.S. and other NATO officials hope the Kandahar campaign will prove decisive in turning the tide against the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, a key goal in the war. The clock is ticking on President Barack Obama’s promise to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan starting in July 2011 and the coalition is already fraying. Dutch troops will leave by the end of this year, and Canada will end its combat role next year.
But here in the Arghandab valley, the soldiers are battling a long history of government neglect and corruption, and trying to win over local leaders who are used to playing all sides.
The two-day operation into Shuyene Wusa, a village of about 800 residents, launched April 10th, was based on intelligence that Taliban fighters were using the village as a safe area from which to plan and stage attacks.
But after more than 200 U.S., Canadian and Afghan troops arrived by helicopter that morning, it was clear that the fighters had either left the village or blended in with the population. Maulawi, the mullah, invited Razuri and other soldiers to sit down for tea.
The mullah insisted that security in the village was fine and that the Taliban did not use the area as a base.
“This is the safest village in the Arghandab valley,” he proclaimed. “If I see suspicious guys in this village, I will kill them myself.”
The old man claimed the last time he had seen a Taliban fighter was in 2001, before the U.S.-led invasion toppled the fundamentalist regime. Later, a Canadian officer voiced skepticism.
“There’ve been [bombs] all up and down this road for the last year, and there’s no Taliban in this village?” said Maj. Andrew Vivian, commander of the advisory team accompanying Afghan troops. “Give me a break.”
The mullah readily agreed to let the soldiers to conduct a sweep of the compounds, and sent three men along to accompany them.
As the search took place, Razuri and the mullah continued to chat. The mullah said the village had never received any kind of economic aid or other assistance from the provincial government. The village malik, or representative, lived in Kandahar city and never visited, he said.
Mike Callan, a retired New York City detective working as a law enforcement adviser to the battalion, said it was not uncommon for the maliks to live in Kandahar and cheat poor villagers, many who work as sharecroppers for the malik and other absentee landlords, out of free wheat seed and other government aid.
“Every time they give that stuff out, they’re lucky if a quarter of it makes it down to the village,” he said. “The rest of it gets taken to Kandahar, and it gets sold.”
Corruption also extends to the judicial process, where Taliban fighters are frequently released from jail despite strong cases, he said.
The search of the village turned up nothing in the way of weapons or bomb-making materials. Afghan troops confiscated an old Soviet military radio that appeared to have not been used in some time, a tattered camouflage uniform, several spent artillery shell casings and a small ball of opium.
By nightfall, with the mullah objecting to the soldiers plan to spend the night, Razuri said it was likely that someone had warned him against cooperating with the soldiers any further.
The next day the district governor arrived and promised better security and economic aid for the village.
“The next step is to bring back in the ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANP (Afghan National Police) on a regular basis and to start bringing in some projects to show the people that the government is bringing them something,” said Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which took over operations in the Arghandab last December.
Razuri, the Company C commander, called the meeting “a step in the right direction.”
“At least we have them talking to each other now,” he said.