U.S. Marines report peace deal with tribe in Afghan hot spot

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 3, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. Marine commander in southern Afghanistan said Monday that an influential Afghan tribe had agreed to put a stop to Taliban attacks in a highly contested part of Helmand province sometimes called "Afghanistan's Fallujah."

The agreement, if it holds, could provide a much-needed respite for American Marines, who have faced surprisingly effective resistance since they took control of Helmand's Sangin district from British forces in September.

U.S. military officials said they were cautiously optimistic about the deal, which a Taliban spokesman derided as American propaganda intended to demoralize insurgent fighters in Helmand.

In the past, such accords have proved to be fleeting. In late 2006, British forces agreed to a Taliban cease-fire in another volatile part of Helmand province; the Taliban retook it four months later.

U.S. military officials said they were taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the Sangin agreement.

In recent weeks, Sangin has been the scene of some of the most deadly fighting in Afghanistan.

Some military analysts have compared Sangin to Fallujah, the Iraqi city that was the scene of two grueling U.S. military offensives in 2004 that eventually wrested the pivotal area from insurgent control.

More than 100 British soldiers — a third of all British casualties in Afghanistan — were killed during the four years they battled insurgents in Sangin. The U.S. Marines have lost 23 men since they took over the area in the fall.

During one week last fall, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, from Camp Pendleton, Calif. — the same "Dark Horse" battalion that took part in the second Fallujah offensive in 2004 — lost 10 men in Sangin.

Amid the intense fighting, more than three dozen tribal elders from one corner of Sangin made a tantalizing offer to help halt insurgent attacks and drive out foreign fighters, Afghan and American officials said.

As a confidence-building measure requested by the elders, Helmand officials said, they released a local religious leader whom they'd held for a month. That gesture over the weekend helped pave the way for the tribal leaders to cement their pledges during a jirga, a tribal gathering, Afghan officials said.

Under the agreement, the tribal leaders vowed to expel foreign fighters, allow Afghan and U.S. forces to patrol the area, contain Taliban attacks and help identify deadly roadside bombs, which have taken a heavy toll on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In exchange, American and Afghan leaders are supposed to pump more money into the area.

"We are cautiously optimistic of this agreement and will monitor whether it leads to reduced insurgent influence," said U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the commander of coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan.

The deal applies only to Sarwan Qala, a troublesome Taliban haven with about 30 villages in Sangin district that's dominated by members of the Alokozai tribe.

The British forces once in charge of Helmand drew criticism in 2006 for agreeing to a cease-fire in Musa Qala, one of the Taliban's strongest sanctuaries in the province. Four months after sealing the deal, Taliban forces retook Musa Qala.

After the deal, the U.S. general in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan privately grumbled that the British forces had "made a mess of things" in Helmand, according to a diplomatic cable that WikiLeaks recently released.

Afghan and coalition forces retook Musa Qala in late 2007.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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