Helmand braces for Taliban battle

Posted in Terrorism , Afghanistan | 08-Jul-09 | Author: Mohammad Ilyas Dayee and Aziz | Source: Asia Times

US Marines wait to board helicopters from Camp Dwyer as they leave to take part in Operation Khanjar on July 2, 2009.

The residents of Nawa, in Afghanistan's Helmand province, are not accustomed to seeing foreign soldiers on their streets. In fact, for most of the past year they have not seen even their own military - Nawa has been under Taliban control.

That changed on July 2, when a combined force of 4,000 United States Marines Corps and 650 Afghan troops, along with 50 aircraft and dozens of combat vehicles, rolled out their biggest offensive since Fallujah, in Iraq, in 2004.

Operation Khanjar (Dagger Thrust) is no ordinary military action. Its aim, according to the officers in charge, is to win the hearts and minds of Helmandis. Instead of the "clear and withdraw" tactics of previous years, which did little more than temporarily displace the insurgents, Operation Khanjar will leave foreign troops holding an area, aiming to make reconstruction and development possible.

"What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," said Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, in a statement issued on July 2.

But they will have an uphill battle convincing war-weary Afghans that this time things will be different.

"I cannot remember a single operation involving foreign soldiers that has not resulted in civilian casualties," said Pacha, a resident of Lashkar Gah, whose family is in Nawa. "I called my father a few minutes ago and told him to get the family out of the house, to come here."

The issue of civilian casualties has caused considerable tension between the Afghan government and the foreign community over the past year. But the recently appointed US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has made the protection of civilians his highest priority. In late June, he issued a new tactical directive, calling on troops in battle to take particular care to avoid endangering non-combatants, especially when calling in air strikes.

"We have been fully assured that there will not be any civilian casualties in this operation," said Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand governor. "We are confident that this operation will be conducted with extreme care."

Ahmadi said the operation would target Nawa, Garmsir, Nad Ali and Greshk districts.

Even without the air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians in recent months, many Afghans are unhappy about the presence of foreign troops in their backyard.

"Our entire village is surrounded," said Sefatullah, a resident of a village in Nad Ali called 31 West. "The foreigners are driving their tanks in our fields. They will not let anyone come out of their houses."

A resident of Nawa told a similar tale. "There are more than 60 tanks in our fields," said Sher Agha. "Why can't they drive on the roads? Do they think they are going to find Taliban in our fields? They are causing enormous damage."

The Taliban have offered little resistance so far, although some residents reported the sound of heavy machine-gun fire, and one said that a few rockets had landed on his village in Nawa.

"There is no fighting yet, but there have been a huge number of airplanes patrolling," said Sharafuddin, in Nawa. "I can see the Taliban. They are sitting on the riverbank, just watching, and preparing themselves for the fight."

In Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, life is going on normally, although the sound of explosions can be heard faintly, according to residents and foreign visitors. Shops are open, and people are out on the streets. There was even an election rally on July 2 by about 2,000 women in support of President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan is holding presidential elections on August 20, and one of the stated reasons for Operation Khanjar is to provide a more secure environment for the poll. If the turnout is too low, say observers, it could compromise the result and throw doubt on the legitimacy of the victor.

"This operation is to bring peace and opportunity for employment of people," said Helmand governor Gulab Mangal. "We want to create the opportunity for people to participate in the elections."

While there are those who are angered by the heavy foreign troop presence, significant numbers of locals are tired of living under the Taliban, and are relieved that the insurgents may soon be gone.

"This operation will be good if done correctly," said Abed, a resident of Nawa. "We would love to live in peace, and without the Taliban authoritarianism."

According to Abed, the Taliban have left his area and are congregating in Khosrabad village. "They are just waiting for the fight," he said. "I am very happy that they are gone. We have a lot of houses here, and if anyone drops a bomb it will kill a lot of people."

A resident of Khosrabad, who did not want to give his name for fear of the Taliban, confirmed that there was now a heavy insurgent presence in his village. "The Taliban are telling people to leave, to get out of their houses," he said. "This is the opposite of what they usually do. They used to make people stay, to use them as shields."

The Taliban, for their part, say they are preparing for battle. "We will fight until our last breath," said Mullah Abdullah, a local Taliban commander in Helmand, who returned to Nawa just a few days ago. He was seriously injured in a skirmish with international forces in May, and had gone to Pakistan for treatment. He is now back, and ready for jihad.

"This operation will not have any result. The Taliban will never let the Americans and these other kafirs [infidels] control the villages. We will fight until our last breath."

The Taliban have already claimed at least one victim: press reports indicate that one US Marine was killed and several others wounded or injured during the first day of fighting.

Helmandis, meanwhile, are a bit puzzled about all the hardware. The Taliban cannot be defeated with a frontal assault, they say. Guerrilla warfare, or so-called asymmetric combat, is hard on the larger army, and on the civilians caught in the middle.

"The foreigners are bragging that they will get rid of the Taliban. Give me a break!" said one angry resident in Nad Ali. "They could bring 70,000 soldiers, [but] they still would not be able to do it. One Taliban fighter attacks them from inside a house, then he escapes. The Taliban are never going to get together all in one place, to have a major fight. The only thing they will be able to do is kill civilians."

Political analyst Wahid Muzhda, who worked as a civil servant under the Taliban regime, is also skeptical about the success of Operation Khanjar.

"With all the soldiers and hardware, it is not going to be difficult to gain control of the areas," he told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "But how long are they going to stay? This is the rule of guerrilla warfare: if the guerrillas are facing a decent army, they are not going to stay and fight. They will flee, and come back once the army has left.

"Let's wait until the end of this operation. If the Americans set up bases after gaining control, then it is clear that [President Barack] Obama's strategy for resolving Afghanistan's problems is going to be implemented. If not, this invasion is just a tactical move. It's nothing more than a propaganda campaign for the new general."

Mohammad Ilyas Dayee and Aziz Ahmad Tassal are IWPR-trained reporters in Helmand. Aziz Ahmad Shafe also contributed to this report from Helmand.