In Taliban heartland, coalition's made little headway after 8 years

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 13, 2009 

ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Two miles from the gates of an isolated Canadian military base in southern Afghanistan lies Sangsar, the village where the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam was born.

A few miles farther east is Siah Choy, where students learn to build roadside bombs for passing U.S. and Afghan troops. About six miles further east, in Nakhonay, the Taliban store thousands of weapons to distribute in the region.

This fertile part of southern Afghanistan is the front line of the war between the American-led coalition and the Taliban. Yet neither the U.S. nor its coalition partners have any troops stationed in these villages.

The Taliban's grip here is so strong that Afghan government leaders can't live in their own villages, so the farmers turn to the militants to settle local disputes. When Afghans go to the polls next Thursday to pick a president, no one here will vote because the Taliban have ordered them to stay home.

The coalition's precarious position in Kandahar province after nearly eight years of a war that's claimed more than 775 American lives is a warning that the new U.S. campaign to subdue the Taliban in the Islamists' heartland will be, at best, an uphill struggle.

Later this month, soldiers from the 5th Brigade of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash., will take control of this base, part of an American troop increase that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has said is key to wresting control from the Taliban.

But the tactics the U.S. honed in Iraq will be of little or no use here, where roadways are either dusty, unpaved tracks or simply dry creek beds and where the terrian is lush, Vietnam-like, capable of growing grapes, opium poppies and marijuana, yet fiercely hot — temperatures easily reach 130 degrees in the summer and soldiers walk a few hundred yards and collapse before a shot is fired.

And the Canadians who have been here for the past three years are openly skeptical that their U.S. brethren, with huge eight-wheeled Stryker armored fighting vehicles in the lush waist-high grape vines, will have any better luck subduing the Taliban than they did.

The Americans "need to understand this is the toughest environment" they'll face, said Capt. Chris Blouin of Canada's Royal 22nd Regiment. "It's not complicated. Expect everything."

For three years, a Canadian force of a few hundred has faced as many as 15,000 Taliban here. In those three years, however, the Canadians acknowledge that they've had little more than a "finger in the dike strategy" aimed at preventing Taliban forces from capturing Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, 20 miles to the east. With few resources, stalemate was the Canadians' strategy.

America's allies have no territorial gains to show for the effort. The schools they built were destroyed after the Taliban took them over and used them to stage ambushes. The small outposts they established, including the one in Sangsar, were abandoned in 2007 under constant Taliban attack.

"All we were really able to do, and have been able to do, is keep the insurgency sufficiently at bay that it doesn't become a real challenge to the state," said Canadian Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, who commands 2,800 troops in Kandahar province, about 300 of them based in Sangsar. "And it's not a real challenge to the state."

The Canadians' efforts to guide and train their Afghan counterparts who share this base have been equally frustrating.

At a meeting of local elders last month on the Afghan side of the base, Canadian and Afghan soldiers and police officers sat around a table laden with Oreos and pretzels mixed with dried apricots and figs.

The local police chief, Bizmullah Jan, asked for more help from the Canadians. The Canadians' lack of troops, however, makes it hard for them to support the Afghans the way the Afghans would like.

"Your troops need to understand that they are better fighters than the Taliban, and the Taliban are not good fighters. . . . The Taliban have an ammo issue as well," said Blouin, 31, of Quebec, who's assigned to the Bravo Company in the 2nd Battalion of Canada's Royal 22nd Regiment. "Don't shoot everywhere. This is your country, and you need to be out the wire (in front) first."

The local Afghan army chief, Lt. Col Miranwar, who like many Afghans uses only one name, chimed in: "You have the technology, the best technology, but every time the Taliban fight, you cannot find them. . . . You say you are here to help and support us, so we need support and help from you."

Blouin didn't budge. "It is chaotic on the ground, and there are too many people, so I cannot see who is the enemy. . . . It is a mistake to count too much on the technology because the Taliban doesn't have technology."

"Yes, but the Taliban have the authority over the whole area," Miranwar replied.

The Canadians are bitter about their role. They've lost 125 soldiers — the highest proportionally of any coalition partner — and have killed thousands of Taliban fighters and hundreds more civilians in short bursts of operations, usually lasting a few days.

Now they feel the clock ticking: They have two years to make a lasting difference before political pressure probably will force them to go home. Canada's politicians have said that their combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011.

"We are proud to have been here. This is the heart of the insurgency," said Capt. Christian Maranda, 30, of Quebec and of Bravo Company. "But of course it's frustrating, because we lose ground every time we lose an area."

The local population has lost hope that the coalition can wrest control from the Taliban fighters who hide in their fields and take over their homes. Afghans resent the Canadians for making their lives more difficult. They've seen civilians killed. Their districts aren't safe. Canadian soldiers often have driven off the roads and destroyed farmers' 100-year-old grapevines in an effort to dodge the explosives that are waiting for them.

"Every yard is a trench for the enemy. . . . The people don't think about government and elections. The people now are just trying to save themselves," said district leader Naiz Mohammed Abdul Sarahadi, who splits his time between the base and Kandahar city because his district is too dangerous for him.

"Whenever there are more coalition forces, there are more deaths. These operations should have a result. We have an operation, and the Taliban move back in."

Taliban wearing flip-flops and carrying AK-47 rifles and rocket launchers have the small Canadian forward operating base near Zhari surrounded, but how many of them there are is anyone's guess. Blouin has heard 15,000. Harassment fire is common, usually beginning in midmorning, from men a few hundred yards from the base.

Every time the Taliban appear, Canadian medics who've grown accustomed to the routine put on their bright blue plastic gloves and booties, stand in front of stretchers laid out in a barren outdoor medical center and await the inevitable casualties.

The Taliban have no chance of overrunning the base, but they're sending a message to the villagers: They, not the foreign forces, are in charge of this area. They'll launch another two attacks outside the base before the week is over.

The longest land battle of this Afghan war took place just south of here in September 2006. The Canadians call it the Battle of Medusa, and they say that hundreds of Taliban were killed, along with 12 Canadian soldiers. Some think that battle, the most conventional fight between the Canadian Forces and the Taliban, stopped the Taliban from moving toward the city of Kandahar.

It was the apex of the Canadian effort here. The Canadians tried to keep the momentum going, but they lost it quickly because they didn't have enough troops.

Throughout their time here, the Canadians have pleaded for more troops and resources. They asked for more helicopters but never got them. They pleaded with the Americans to send a new Marine brigade here, only to see it go to neighboring Helmand and Farah provinces.'

Their only reinforcements came last year, when a Canadian commission found that Canada couldn't continue its mission without another 1,000 soldiers. The Americans sent 750 troops plus logistical support to the neighboring Maiwand district and the Canadians agreed to stay for another three years.

They built schools in the community, but NATO destroyed them after the Taliban took them over and used them to stage ambushes. They then set up small outposts, including the one in Sangsar. The Canadians found that they spent most of their effort protecting the outposts, so by early 2007 they moved back to their main base near Zhari.

No coalition soldier has been stationed in the birthplace of the Taliban since then.

Instead, the Canadians have launched one small operation after another, sweeping through the district village by village, operation by operation, back and forth. They've hit each of the district's villages at least twice, once before and once after the warm-weather fighting season. The aim is to capture enough weapons to force the Taliban to search for more instead of driving toward Kandahar.

"We have to hit certain places several times just to keep them off balance," said Cpl. Gary-James Johnston, 27, of Montreal.

Canadian soldiers serve six-month tours in Afghanistan, half as long as the Americans' tours. Since the 22nd Regiment arrived in late March, it's launched 15 operations. In July, the Canadians conducted three operations, each lasting two to three days.

They struck Taliban staging areas toward Kandahar city, accompanied by Afghan forces. During one operation, word leaked out and the Taliban fled. During the others, the militants simply dropped their weapons and went back to farming. In the last operation in July, the Canadians found one of the largest weapons caches of the war, enough rifles, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition to fill a small building.

Still, they've made only a small dent in the insurgency.

"Yeah, they will be back," Canadian Lt. Col. Michael Patrick said after the latest operation. "We know that."

Together, the Canadian troops and the newly arriving 5th Brigade of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division will tackle the area's population centers. The Americans will come to Zhari, and the Canadians will move south to neighboring Panjaway district to reinforce their presence there.

"If we adequately secure 80 percent of the population, and the Taliban become irrelevant to 80 percent of the population, then we are well on our way to winning," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the international force's deputy regional south commander and the highest-ranking American military officer in southern Afghanistan.

But McChrystal's advisers quietly concede that the new U.S. strategy may not work, either, and that if more troops are needed, they'll have to be American troops who are leaving Iraq.

"Even today, we don't have enough," a senior military adviser to McChrystal said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk more candidly about the situation in Kandahar. "This is all the reality of an under-resourced war, and that's the impact of Iraq."

"We kept a lid on this as best we could, and successfully. The insurgency didn't win," said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander in Kandahar province.

"Woulda, shoulda, coulda, there would have been more troops here, and there would have been right from the beginning," Vance continued. "But there weren't. So we did exactly what we had to do. Now we have an opportunity. . . . We have two years" before the Canadians are expected to leave Afghanistan. "In two years, you can do a lot."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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