Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Update on the Ground War

The long-promised ground offensive in Khandahar (not Kandahar) inauspiciously started earlier this week. Not much in the media about the largest military offensive since 2001.

Khandahar is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it is the "spiritual birthplace" of the Taliban. The Taliban (in Pashto, Talib means "student" and the -an suffix pluralizes it, so "students") is the brain child of Mullah Mohammed Omar. After the fall of the Najibullah regine in 1993, the entire country was in chaos. Omar (and others) decided to offer a program of law and order supposedly based on the Qur'an. It was an easy sell in the land of decades of war and corrupt warlords. Second, having such a legacy, Khandahar is the Taliban-esque ideological stronghold today--similar to the Ba'athist stronghold of Tikrit (Saddaam's birthplace). Third, along with Helmand Province, Khandahar Province, located in the southern portion of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, is THE main thoroughfare for militants, weapons, and narcotics. The city of Khandahar is a south Asian cross-roads, with major roadways connecting it to Kabul, Herat, and Ghazni in Afghanistan and Quetta in Pakistan (which is the relocated home base of the Afghan Taliban). Thus, Khandahar is a very important societal, economic, political, and military target.

Tyler Hicks from the New York Times gives a brief account of this week's ground combat involving the 101st Airborne (affectionately known by the Army Rangers as the "Screaming Chickens"):

NOTE: I rib the Screaming Chickens, but 16 hard-charging grunts died this week. Infantry is infantry, no matter the unit or service branch, and my condolences go out to their loved ones. You did us proud, HUAH!

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — American and Afghan troops began active combat last week in an offensive to drive the Taliban out of their strongholds surrounding the city of Kandahar, military officials said Sunday.

In the last several days, soldiers shifted from guarding aid workers and sipping tea with village elders to actively hunting down Taliban fighters in marijuana fields and pomegranate orchards laced with booby traps.

Sixteen Americans have died in the push so far, including two killed by a roadside bomb on Sunday.

The combat phase began five or six days ago in the Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai Districts, Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said, defining the current phase for the first time.

“We expect hard fighting,” he said of the offensive, whose objective is to clear the Taliban from three districts to the west and south of the city.

Winning over Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is considered crucial to President Obama’s efforts to shift the balance of power in Afghanistan after the militants’ comeback of recent years.

“This is the most significant military operation ongoing in Afghanistan,” General Blotz, who is with the International Security Assistance Force of NATO, said, calling it the “top operational priority now.”

This is the first large-scale combat operation involving multiple objectives in Kandahar Province, where a military offensive was originally expected to begin in June. That offensive was downgraded to more of a joint civil-military effort after the military encountered problems containing the Taliban in the much smaller city of Marja and because Afghan leaders feared high civilian casualties.

During the last week of August, at the instigation of Afghan authorities, American troops supported a major push into the Mehlajat area on the southwest edge of Kandahar City, driving the Taliban from that area with few casualties on either side.

At the time, military officials said that was the beginning of what would be an increase in active combat around Kandahar.

Bismillah Khan, the police chief in the Zhari District, confirmed that the combat operation there began on Saturday, but he declined to give further details. Some of the heaviest fighting has been in Zhari, where troops have been told to avoid contact with local people because of widespread hostility toward foreign forces there.

Zhari is the hometown of the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, and it also sits astride the strategic Highway 1, connecting Kandahar with Helmand Province to the west.

Often the soldiers there run what are known as “move to contact” patrols that have no goal but to draw fire from the Taliban so aircraft can find and kill them.

Last Tuesday, a United States Army platoon left Forward Operating Base Wilson early in the morning and within 10 minutes, Taliban insurgents had opened fire with small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Although helicopter gunships were soon overhead to support the ground forces, the insurgents continued to fire on the patrol throughout the day as the troops made their way through vineyards and fields of marijuana plants 10 feet high.

None of the Americans were wounded or killed on that patrol.

Journalists from The New York Times, during a weeklong stay there, observed that every time soldiers left their bases, they were either shot at or hit with bombs, often hidden or booby-trapped.

Frequently, the Taliban did not — as they normally would — stop shooting once air support arrived.

Soldiers on a recent patrol, clearing up after one bomb explosion, discovered that a piece of debris lodged in a tree had itself been rigged with a tripwire, practically under their noses.

Here in Arghandab, the flow of troops has made it possible to begin trying to take control of an area where thick vegetation, irrigation canals and pomegranate orchards provide good cover for the Taliban, according to Lt. Col. Joseph Krebs, deputy commander for the Second Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, but the results have been mixed.

No sooner had the First Battalion of the 22nd Armored Regiment of the Army arrived here than five soldiers were killed on Aug. 30, by a roadside bomb directed at their convoy. The dead included the first Army chaplain to be killed in active duty during the Afghan conflict.

The chaplain, Capt. Dale A. Goetz, 43, had been on a tour of some of the 18 combat outposts the military has established in the Arghandab District.

Three days later, rockets fired from orchards just outside the district center hit the dining tent at the main American base, slightly wounding five soldiers.

While no official casualty totals have been released for the recent operations in the Kandahar districts, American military reports list 16 American fatalities in the Kandahar area since Aug. 30, at least 10 of which were in the Arghandab or Zhari Districts.

An effort to bring all of the heavily Pashtun south under coalition control began on Feb. 14 with an attempt to suppress the Taliban in and around Marja. Kandahar was to be the next target.

But the Taliban in Marja have still not been subdued, so officials decided to concentrate first on bringing economic development to some districts around Kandahar city, then on gradually stepping up military operations.

“I look at each one of my 13 combat platoons as a development team,” said Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, commander of the First Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, stationed at the district headquarters here.

“I’m not going to tell you the population is fully in support, but they are much more in support of the government and the coalition than they are of the Taliban,” he said. Along with the military buildup has come a similar effort to increase the presence of State Department employees, along with aid contractors paid by the Americans, who would serve as stabilization teams in those areas.

Although some 300 American civilian staff members have arrived in Kandahar Province, at the district levels there are only a few, mainly because of security concerns.

In Arghandab, where the civilian effort is deemed to have been the most successful, the district team consists of two Americans in addition to contractors and local employees. “It’s hard to get people to come here,” said Kevin Melton, who is finishing up a yearlong tour running the State Department team in Arghandab.
When Mr. Melton arrived, the district government was not functioning. Now, there is an active shura or village council, with people coming to the district government’s building regularly, attracted by generous aid programs.

“Five dead and that’s the news that gets out,” Mr. Melton said, referring to the first fatalities in Arghandab. “Yeah, we know what’s going wrong, but look what’s going right. If we had done this eight years ago, would we have been here now?”
By comparison, other districts like Zhari and Panjwai are just getting started, he said.


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