In southern Afghanistan, the marines clear a little space for optimism

Posted in Broader Middle East , Afghanistan | 27-May-08 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit patrolled the southern Afghanistan village of Hazarjoft on May 21. The unit is planning to move on in the next few weeks.

GARMSER, Afghanistan: For two years British troops staked out a presence in this small district center in southern Afghanistan and fended off attacks from the Taliban. The constant firefights left it a ghost town, its bazaar broken and empty but for one baker, its houses and orchards reduced to rubble and weeds.

But it took the U.S. Marines, specifically the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, about 96 hours to clear out the Taliban in a fierce battle in the past month and push them back 10 kilometers, or six miles.

The operation stood in stark contrast to the events of March 2007, when a Marine unit shot and killed 19 civilians after a suicide bombing attack.

This time, the performance of the new unit of marines, in Afghanistan for seven months to bolster NATO forces, will be under particular scrutiny.

Not only has the NATO-led campaign against the Taliban come under increasing scrutiny for its slow progress in curbing the insurgency, it also has been widely criticized for the high numbers of civilian casualties.

The marines' drive against the Taliban in this large farming region is certainly not finished, and the Taliban have often been pushed out of areas in Afghanistan only to return in force. But for the British forces and for Afghan residents, the result of the recent operation has been palpable.

The district chief returned to his job from his refuge in the provincial capital within days of the battle. Two hundred people - including 100 elders of the community - gathered for a meeting with him and the British to plan the regeneration of the town.

Major Neil Den-McKay, the officer commanding a company of the Royal Regiment of Scotland based here, said of the U.S. Marine's assault: "They have disrupted the Taliban's freedom of movement and pushed them south, and that has created the grounds for us to develop the hospital and set the conditions for the government to come back." People have started coming back to villages north of the town, he added, saying, "There has been huge optimism from the people."

For the marines, it was a chance to hit the enemy with the full panoply of their firepower in places where they were confident there were few civilians. The Taliban put up a tenacious fight, rushing in reinforcements in cars and vans from the south and returning again and again to the attack. But they were beaten back in four days by three companies of marines, two of which were dropped in by helicopter to the south east.

Hundreds of families, their belongings and children packed high on tractor-trailers, had fled north from villages in the southern part of the battle zone in the days after the assault began, said marines at one checkpoint. The Taliban told them to leave as the fighting began, they said. Hospital officials in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, reported receiving eight civilian casualties as a result of the fighting, including a 14-year-old boy who died from his wounds. The marines had no casualties in the initial fighting, but one was killed and two were wounded in subsequent clashes.

Marines from Charlie Company said the reaction from the returning population, mostly farmers, has been favorable. "Everyone says they don't like the Taliban," said Captain John Moder, 34, commander of Charlie Company. People had complained that the Taliban stole food, clothes and vehicles from them, he said.

There are about 34,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but additional marines were sent to the country after NATO requested more help in the south, where the Taliban are particularly strong.

Human rights groups say that up to 19 civilians were killed and 50 people were wounded on March 4, 2007, when a Marine convoy opened fire after a suicide car bomb wounded a marine. On Friday, the Marine Corps said it would not bring charges against two marines from the 26 Marine Expeditionary Unit for the episode, a decision that was greeted with dismay in Afghanistan.

The U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeill, had a checklist of tasks around the country for the 3,200 marines when they arrived in March. But the majority of them have spent a month in Garmser after changing their original plan to secure a single road here, when they realized how important the area was to the Taliban as an infiltration and supply route to fighters in northern Helmand Province.

"This is an artery and we did not realize that when we squeezed that artery, it would have such an effect," said First Lieutenant Mark Matzke, the executive officer of Charlie Company.

The whole area was unexpectedly welcoming to the U.S. forces, and eager for security and development, Moder of Charlie Company said.

"Us pushing the Taliban out allows the Afghan National Army to come in," he said. "This is a real bread basket here. There's a lot of potential here."

This southern part of Helmand Province, along the Helmand River valley, is prime agricultural land and still benefits from the grand irrigation plan started by U.S. government assistance in the 1950s and 1960s. It has traditionally been the main producer of wheat and other crops for the country, but in 30 years of war has given way to poppies, providing a large percentage of the crop that has made Afghanistan the producer of 98 percent of the world's opium.

The region has long been an infiltration route for insurgents coming across the southern border with Pakistan, crossing the border from Baluchistan via an Afghan refugee camp, known as Girdi Jungle, notorious for its drug smuggling and gun running.

The Taliban, and the drug runners, then race across a region known ominously as the desert of death until they reach the river valley, which provides ideal cover of villages and greenery.

With such a large area under their control, they were able to gather in numbers, stockpile weapons and provide a logistics route to send fighters and weapons into northern Helmand and the provinces of Kandahar and Uruzgan beyond.

The Taliban, who kicked out villagers and took over their farmhouses, sometimes even bringing their families from Pakistan to join them, were joined by Arabs and Pakistanis, Den-McKay said.

"The majority of elements in this area are Arab and Pakistani, and the locals detest them," he said. Some of the Arabs were specialist trainers and some young jihadists from different countries. The commanders were Iranians, which shares a border with Afghanistan to the southwest, as well as Saudis and Pakistanis, he asserted.

Afghan villagers confirmed that there were local Afghan Taliban fighting, too, and named one, Abdul Hadi Agha, who was killed in the recent fighting. But they said there were also Pakistanis, ethnic Baluchis from southern Iran and Arabs.

The local people complained that the Taliban taxed them heavily on the opium harvest. They demanded up to 13 kilos of opium from every farmer, which was more than the entire harvest of some, so they were forced to go and buy opium to meet the demand, said one farmer Abdul Taher, 45.

"We had a lot of trouble these last two years," said Sher Ahmad, 32.

His father, Abdul Nabi, the elder of a small hamlet in the village of Hazarjoft, a few miles south of Garmser, said: "We are very grateful for the security. We don't need your help, just security."

Villagers were refusing foreign aid because the Taliban were already infiltrating back and threatening anyone who took it, said Matzke, the first lieutenant of Charlie Company.

After a month in the region, the marines have secured only half of a 10 square kilometer area south of Garmser, and Taliban operating out of two villages are still attacking their southern flank and even creeping up to fire at British positions on the edge of the town.

But the bigger test will come in the next few weeks as the marines move on, the Afghans take over, supported by the British, and the Taliban try to blend in with the returning population and orchestrate attacks, as everyone here expects them to do.

Den-McKay says the British troops were ready. "The threat will migrate from direct attacks to suicide attacks," he said.

Now on his fourth tour in Afghanistan, Den-McKay said he had seen considerable progress in the confidence and ability of the Afghan forces. Reinforcements of police, trained by the British and Americans, have moved in and are working well with border police and intelligence service personnel, he said. The marines, meanwhile, prepare for their next move. To the south lies a swath of uncontrolled territory where the Taliban still operate freely.