|The crew chief of a US Army Chinook helicopter sat on the tail ramp of his craft, which is used to transport US and Afghan soldiers in the Zhari District in southern Afghanistan. (Brennan Linsley/ Associated Press)|
US, Afghan troops begin major battle for Kandahar
Goal is to clear Taliban from nearby areas; Success crucial to allied strategy
ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — American and Afghan troops have begun the active combat phase of a military operation designed to drive the Taliban out of districts around the insurgent stronghold of Kandahar City, military officials said yesterday.
Code-named “Operation Dragon Strike,’’ the push is focusing on clearing the Taliban from three districts to the west and south of the city, said Brigadier General Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. “We expect hard fighting.’’
The aim, he said, would be “destroying Taliban fighting positions so they will not have anywhere to hide.’’
The operation is the first large-scale combat 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 in trying to pacify the much smaller city of Marja and because of resistance from Afghan leaders concerned about the possibility of high civilian casualties.
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 staged a comeback in recent years.
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 them from that area but with few casualties on either side.
Blotz said the combat phase of Dragon Strike began five or six days ago in Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwye districts, with “shaping operations’’ preceding that for several weeks.
He declined to release further details on the new operation, other than to say it involved a large number of troops with air support, and that for the first time in a major operation, more Afghan forces were deployed than coalition ones.
Bismillah Khan, the police chief in Zhari district, said the combat operation began there on Saturday, but he declined to give further details.
“Afghan and coalition forces are repeatedly hitting the insurgents in their backyard, allowing them no time to regroup,’’ said Colonel Rafael Torres, director of ISAF’s Joint Operations Center. “The ultimate goal is to disrupt the enemy’s sanctuaries and staging areas for attacks into Kandahar City.’’
In a separate development yesterday, four aid workers for the US Agency for International Development were kidnapped by gunmen on one of the country’s major highways, according to embassy and police officials.
The provincial police chief, General Khalilullah Ziayee, said that the aid workers — a British woman and three Afghan men — were stopped as they drove in two cars from Jalalabad to Asadabad in Kunar Province, in the east of the country, and were taken away at gunpoint.
Steven O’Connor, a spokesman for DAI, a US company that works exclusively for USAID in Afghanistan, said the British woman and one of the Afghans were DAI employees, and the other two Afghan men were drivers.
American troop strength in Afghanistan peaked earlier this month at just over 100,000 soldiers with the arrival of the last of 30,000 reinforcements ordered by Obama as a surge of additional forces in Afghanistan. With other NATO forces, that brings coalition forces to 150,000, the most at any point in the nine-year-long war.
At least 30,000 of those troops are estimated to be in the Kandahar area.
American troops here and in the other districts have reported a steadily increasing tempo of contacts with Taliban insurgents, and particularly with roadside bombs hidden by them, in recent weeks as the number of foreign forces here increased.
In Arghandab, the inflow of troops has made it possible to begin trying to pacify an area where thick vegetation, irrigation canals, and pomegranate orchards provide good cover for Taliban insurgents, said Colonel Joe Krebs, the Second Brigade Combat team’s deputy commander.
While no official casualty totals have been released for the recent operations in the Kandahar districts, a count by iCasual-ties.org, which tracks coalition deaths, showed 14 American fatalities in Kandahar between Aug. 30 and Sept. 23, the latest date for which details are available. At least six of them were in Arghandab and two in Zhari district.
That compares with 10 American personnel lost during that same period in Helmand Province, where US Marines have been struggling to suppress the Taliban in and around Marja, scene of the year’s first major offensive, Operation Mustarak, which began Feb. 14.
Kandahar’s Operation Hamkari, the combined civilian-military effort of which the more recent Dragon Strike is a part, adopted a strategy of concentrating on development projects in key districts around Kandahar City, as well as in the city itself, while at the same time increasing the military presence.
“I look at each one of my 13 combat platoons as a development team,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel 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 US State Department employees, along with aid contractors paid by the Americans, staffing district stabilization teams in those key districts.
The civilian buildup has not been as dramatic as the military one.