KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S.-led forces began a key operation Wednesday in the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan, meeting surprisingly little initial resistance in the district in the south of the country that gave birth to the Taliban.
The offensive to secure Zhari, just west of Kandahar city, is part of the last phase of attempting to stabilize the crucial province of Kandahar by the end of this year. The White House plans a December review of its Afghan policy and progress toward its plans to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next July.
At least 4,800 troops — half of them American, half Afghan — are taking part in the operation, military officials said. Three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky. — plus Rangers, U.S. special forces and Afghan troops — moved into the insurgent-held "green zone" of Zhari, a strip of farmland that offers cover for guerrilla fighting..
The offensive comes just ahead of Saturday's parliamentary elections, a day that's likely to be bloody, warned the top International Security Assistance Force commander in the south, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter of Britain.
"If it is like last year" — when presidential elections were held — "it will be a very violent day," Carter said in Kandahar. The Taliban "will want to make it violent enough for people to want to stay indoors."
With the American troop surge complete, ISAF commanders think that this autumn is the best chance they'll have to take the fight to the insurgents before the U.S. and its allies begin to withdraw and the strained unity in the international community dissipates. The troops now assembled in Kandahar represent the greatest firepower that ISAF and Afghan forces have ever been able to deploy.
However, it's not clear whether the Taliban will stand and fight in Zhari or will manage to evade the offensive, and the insurgents already have stepped up operations elsewhere in the country where there are allied troops. The ISAF has a major fight on its hands in the east, and security has deteriorated even in previously peaceful areas. Losses among international forces are at record levels.
Mullah Mohammad Omar founded the Taliban movement in 1994 in Singesar, a village in the west of Zhari that's one of the operation's targets.
The third phase of the operation to secure Kandahar province, dubbed Hamkari (Dari for "cooperation"), is challenging the Taliban's control of their strongholds west of Kandahar city, in Zhari and Panjwai, Carter said. He said the operation in Panjwai was "an incremental process" begun in the past few weeks.
At around 4 a.m. local time Wednesday (7:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday), U.S. and Afghan soldiers moved toward the first target villages in the east of Zhari, among them Makuan.
Maj. Antwan Dunmyer, the battalion executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, which is handling the east of Zhari, said that a sole homemade bomb was found and defused, the only insurgent activity the soldiers met in the first hours of the assault on Makuan.
"I thought we would have seen more resistance than we had," Dunmyer said. "They knew we were coming, or they knew something was coming soon. Either they evacuated the area or became 'regular' citizens of Afghanistan."
The low-key nature of the operation is in contrast to the offensive in Marjah, in the adjacent province of Helmand, which began in February in a blaze of publicity. The ISAF appears to have regretted the hoopla surrounding Marjah, especially the plan to rush in Afghan government services, which fell short of promises. The ISAF faced fierce clashes there in the first few days.
"The operation today (in Zhari) has gone well. We breached through some of the IED belts," Carter said, referring to improvised explosive devices, the military's term for homemade bombs.
He said it was too early to say where the Taliban were. "My sense is that there are not too many places to melt away," he added.
He said that the ISAF came up against some resistance but didn't take any casualties.
The ISAF is throwing much greater muscle at Zhari than the district has seen in the last nine years in the hope of preventing a repeat of the usual cycle, Carter said: "clearing" an area and vacating it only to see the Taliban return.
The villages in the farm belt have had little or no connection with the Afghan government or foreign forces, although there've been previous clearance attempts, most notably by Canadian forces in 2006.
It's unclear whether the Afghan government, led by district Gov. Karim Jan, is able to bring services to the people of Zhari, which has only one functioning school — protected by an anti-Taliban warlord — and no clinics or hospitals.
Operation Hamkari got off to a slow start and has no clear end in sight. The first phase, to improve security in Kandahar city, began in April with checkpoints set up around the city, and phase two saw troops push into the Arghandab valley, north of the city, in late July.
Kandahar, a city of as many as 700,000 people, is the hometown of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from the city from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion ousted them in 2001. It remains a dangerous city, with daily murders, kidnapping and intimidation by the insurgents.
"Kandahar (city) is about mobs, mafia, patronage. It's not Taliban patrolling the streets or a situation like Fallujah," Carter said, referring to the insurgent-held Iraqi city that U.S.-led forces stormed in 2004.
Carter said the government now controlled 80 percent of Arghandab, compared with 20 percent before the operation began. ISAF commanders think that Kandahar city won't be secure unless the districts that surround it are under control. In last year's presidential election, the most violent places in the south — meaning probably the most violent in the country — were Zhari, Arghandab and Panjwai.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY