ASHEQEH, Afghanistan — U.S. forces launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan early Wednesday in the district that gave birth to the Taliban movement, in what could be one of the most important offensives of the war.
Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops encircled and swooped into a belt of lush farm land in Zhari district, a sanctuary and staging post for the Taliban just west of Kandahar city known to foreign soldiers as “the heart of darkness.” Key insurgent-held villages such as Mukuan, Pashmul and Singesar are the target, areas essentially untouched by coalition forces since they entered Afghanistan in 2001.
The operation began at 4 a.m. local time Wednesday, approximately 7:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday.
The firepower for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Zhari is provided by three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, bolstered by rangers and special forces teams, aiming to surprise the Taliban with a multi-day massive attack, including airborne assault. The nascent Afghan army, facing a major test of its battle-readiness, will be tasked to conduct house-to-house clearances.
The Taliban are believed to have fortified positions and tunnels in the villages, protected by minefields and bobby-trapped buildings. The terrain, of trees, grape fields with raised earthen mounds, irrigation canals and tall elephant grass is ideal for cover for the Taliban guerrillas. Coalition and Afghan forces will also have to win the backing of locals by ensuring that the lives of any civilians present in those villages are protected.
The goal is to demonstrate to the terrorized people of Zhari that the insurgents are not invincible and that there is an alternative, the Afghan government, which is capable of providing them with security, said Captain Brant Auge, commander of a company of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based at combat outpost Asheqeh, just east of Mukuan village, the biggest insurgent nest in the far east of Zhari.
“Mukuan’s the bogeyman round here,” said Auge, 30, from Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “I don’t think the people and the insurgents believe we can come in and take Mukuan. I don’t think they have a frame of reference to know how many soldiers and resources will be coming.”
Zhari is been at the forefront of Afghanistan’s wars for the last 30 years, an area that the Soviet invaders never managed to pacify in the 1980s. Following the Soviet defeat and withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan’s resistance “mujahedeen” commanders turned on each other, throwing the country into bloody civil war.
In 1994, an obscure religious cleric from what’s now Zhari district, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who ran a seminary in the village of Singesar, rallied Islamic students to take on the feuding warlords, imposing a harsh order rule on most of the country under his Taliban movement over the next couple of years. Omar ran the Taliban administration from Kandahar city, the second biggest town in Afghanistan.
The Zhari offensive is part of a mission to secure the heart of Kandahar province, which many regard as the crucial operation in the nine-year war. Zhari, Kandahar city and the Arghandab valley, to the north of Kandahar city, had been relatively neglected by the coalition until this summer. This summer there have already been operations to clear Arghandab and Kandahar city, though both remain plagued by the Taliban. It is now the turn of Zhari, where a fighting force of some 5,000 soldiers, led by the 101st, hope to make it a demonstration of coalition and Afghan strength.
“The arrival of the 2nd BCT (Brigade Combat Team) of the 101st Airborne will, for the first time, give ISAF the forces necessary to conduct proper counter-insurgency operations in Zhari. But even with the additional forces, clearing and holding Zhari will be a major challenge,” said Carl Forsberg, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, an independent research organization based in Washington. “Even if everything is done correctly, violence in Zhari could remain high for months.”
The government has minimal presence in Zhari, with the new district governor, Karim Jan, against whom there was an assassination attempt last week working out of a coalition military base with just three staff. Jan needs more elders to come forward to join him, said Col Arthur A. Kandarian, brigade commander for the 101st Airborne.
“We’ve got to improve security. The people are trying to make a choice (between the Taliban and the government),” said Kandarian, 46, from Cumberland, R.I. “Zhari and Arghandab are the gateway to Kandahar (city).”
The timing of the Zhari clearance is awkward politically, coming just days before the 18th September parliamentary. The operation is likely to continue through the election, leaving it unclear how the people of Zhari will be able to vote. Part of the rationale for the timing is to hit the Taliban just before winter, when the insurgency usually dies down anyway, to keep them out of the district clear for an extended period of time.
Last week, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, who heads Regional Command South, which includes Kandahar province, said that that “we will have rid those areas (Kandahar city and the surrounding villages) of the Taliban” by mid to late November. He said there were 10,000-12,000 Afghan army troops in the region along with 5,000 Afghan police, and about 15,000 international troops. That would make it the biggest Afghan-coalition joint fighting force assembled in the nine years of the Afghan conflict. They face about 1,000 guerrillas, said Carter, a British officer.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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