Next U.S. target: Taliban’s birthplace

A U.S. soldier from the 101st Airborne Division reads as a sandstorm blows around him at Forward Operating Base Howz-e-Madad in southern Afghanistan's Zhari district on Tuesday. U.S. and Afghan troops plan an assault there, the birthplace of the Taliban, next month. (Associated Press)A U.S. soldier from the 101st Airborne Division reads as a sandstorm blows around him at Forward Operating Base Howz-e-Madad in southern Afghanistan’s Zhari district on Tuesday. U.S. and Afghan troops plan an assault there, the birthplace of the Taliban, next month. (Associated Press)
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HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan | As Lt. Col. Peter N. Benchoff prepares for an assault next month into the birthplace of the Taliban, he doesn’t sugarcoat the hurdles his troops face in this crucial swath of southern Afghanistan.

“Security sucks. Development? Nothing substantial. Information campaign? Nobody believes us. Governance? We’ve had one, hourlong visit by a government official in the last 2½ months,” the battalion commander says. “Taliban is the home team here.”

“Here” is 116 square miles of Zhari, a district just west of Kandahar through which the insurgents funnel fighters, drugs and explosives and stage attacks into the city.

It’s also an iconic, psychologically significant spot for the Taliban. Just about two miles south of the main U.S. base of Howz-e-Madad, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ran an Islamic school, founded the movement in 1994 and nearby hung a warlord from the barrel of a tank after he raped two teenagers.

Senior commanders call the fight for Zhari the next step of a wider campaign to pacify Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, and surrounding countryside. They argue that success in Kandahar could lead to overall victory, given that the Taliban’s power base is rooted in this region.

Zhari itself remains insurgent territory despite five major NATO operations in recent years. In September 2006, a Canadian-led force launched a major operation in Zhari and nearby Panjwai district, pushing out the Taliban, but at a cost of 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back.

Militarily, Col. Benchoff will have to seize the village of Singesar, site of Mullah Omar’s school, now defended by fortified trenches, mortars and mines, and stop Taliban movements and ambushes along Highway 1 and a parallel dirt road dubbed Iron City. Getting the area’s 10,000 inhabitants to sever their links to the Taliban may prove even harder.

With the opening salvo of the push already on the planning boards, perhaps the densest concentration of forces in Afghanistan today has been marshaled: about 1,000 U.S. and 400 Afghan troops, a superb, rarely realized ratio for counterinsurgency operations of one soldier for every 10 civilian residents.

“We are now poking the bear, trying to figure out how he will react and then developing ways to set him up to our advantage,” says Col. Benchoff, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. “We are taking our time to do it right. We don’t want to charge in with shock and awe like in Marjah and then come out scratching our heads and saying, ‘What happened here?’”

Marjah, a town in neighboring Helmand province, was captured in a highly heralded operation in February but has yet to see either solid security or an effective government presence.

In Zhari, patrols are sent out daily, firefights erupt and Afghan commandos have staged some successful raids into Singesar. But Col. Benchoff, a West Point graduate with 44 months in Afghanistan behind him, says his biggest priorities are intensive training of a partner Afghan National Army battalion fresh out of basic training and understanding how to win over the local population via the circle of COIN, acronym for the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine.

Provide basic security to allow development. Tell the locals what you are doing for them and give them good governance, thereby ensuring more security. Spin the wheel fast enough, Col. Benchoff says, and the Taliban won’t be able to hold on.

“Will it work? I’m a guarded optimist. This is the last best way I know,” the officer, from Lancaster, Pa., says.

“This is an enemy-controlled area, and people either support the Taliban actively or passively in order to survive,” he says. “People want security, but they are not fed up enough to turn to the government. We have grandfathers, fathers, uncles who are charter-founding members of the Taliban. It is going to take a long-term, dedicated, persistent effort to win.”

Development- and governance-wise, the area is starting from virtually zero.

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