- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Ten loud explosions that rocked Kandahar one day last week actually signaled good news on the front line of the war against the Taliban.

The blasts — one every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. — were from Afghan and U.S.-coalition forces blowing up more than 6,000 pounds of Taliban AK-47s, bomb-making equipment, homemade explosives and rocket-propelled grenades.

Finding and destroying the insurgents’ weapons in Kandahar province, the ancestral home of President Hamid Karzai and the birthplace of the Taliban, is just one way Afghan and coalition forces are trying to make it difficult for the militants to launch a strong offensive in the spring.

In advance of an increase in fighting expected in the spring, they also are working to demolish Taliban hide-outs, kill and detain Taliban leaders and professionalize police who patrol this city of 800,000 people - the largest in southern Afghanistan.

Civilian workers are pushing forward with development projects and trying to help recruit Afghans for government jobs — even though signing up makes them a target of the insurgency’s campaign of murder and intimidation.

“We are definitely expecting them to come back at us hard,” said Lt. Col. Victor Garcia, deputy commander of the 3,500-soldier 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division deployed in Kandahar province on one of the NATO coalition’s most critical missions.

“If anything, they have to send a message that they are still a force to be reckoned with,” he said. “I believe the Taliban sense that they’ve lost some momentum, and now they’re trying to regain some of that and demonstrate to the population that they still can inflict harm.”

On Feb. 3, in another blast heard around the city, a suicide bomber rammed his car into the home of Kandahar Provincial Police Chief Khan Mohammad.

Mr. Mohammad survived that attack, which came three days after a mine exploded just as his vehicle passed by and a week after the deputy governor of Kandahar was killed when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle drove into his motorcade.

Until late last year, terrorists roamed with little resistance throughout Kandahar province. They clustered outside the city in places like Zhari, Panjwai and Arghandab districts. There, they slept, trained and made bombs to attack targets in the city of Kandahar and fight coalition and Afghan forces.

The Taliban had a psychological hold on the citizens, who had little faith in the Karzai government in Kabul or in the international community’s effort to halt their momentum.

Last summer, after the 40,000 reinforcements, mostly U.S. troops, finished arriving in Afghanistan, coalition and Afghan forces launched bloody offensives to force insurgents from their strongholds. Casualties went up, making 2010 the deadliest year of a war then in its ninth year.

Security improved, and the game plan now is to hold the territory, giving the Afghan government and international community an opportunity to rush in development and bolster governance to win the loyalty of the citizens.

Lt. Col. Garcia compared the current state of play in the battle for Kandahar to a three-dimensional chess game.

“It’s not just our side against their side. There’s the population in the center — many of whom are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see who is going to come out on top,” he said at Camp Nathan Smith, a U.S.-run base on the outskirts of the city.

“Some are tacitly supporting the Taliban because they are fearful. They turn a blind eye and allow the Taliban to transit through their area as long as they don’t harm the people of their village.”

He said coalition forces often hear villagers lament that coalition and Afghan troops have come before but haven’t stuck around.

Ajmal Khan, a 24-year-old from Arghandab, has that fear — yet he’s giving the government a slight edge in the conflict.

“The government can be seen preparing for spring by building up checkpoints so they can control the area in a better and more organized way and close holes that allow the Taliban to enter and cause destruction,” he said. “To an extent, we can see that the Taliban are getting weaker.

“On the other hand, the government and NATO forces always talk big but ultimately face defeat. This time, we can see some major improvements. How far these improvements will work against the Taliban remains to be seen - when spring comes.”

National Police Col. Fazal Ahmad Shirzad, chief of security for Kandahar province, is predicting a Taliban defeat when the weather warms.

“I’m sure that the Taliban will not be able to fight against the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police,” he said while eating a quick supper of chicken, rice and bread in his office following a 15-hour day.

Col. Shirzad noted that 800 more Afghan policemen are patrolling Kandahar city now than at this time last year.

“This week we found 60 improvised explosive devices in and around Kandahar,” said Col. Shirzad, a soft-spoken, determined man with a full black mustache, through an interpreter. “I’m telling you something. Those locations — those districts — that the Taliban controlled, we control now.”

In the past three months, 1,250 Taliban weapons caches have been found in Afghanistan, according to NATO. That compares with 163 uncovered in the same period last year. Since mid-January, 374 caches have been discovered — 85 percent in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province, the coalition said.

The weapons have been easier to spot in winter because of less foliage. Residents tired of the fighting also have tipped off troops about caches.

A hot line set up in Kandahar is getting up to 18 calls a day — some from people telling Afghan and coalition forces where to look. Cards with the hot-line number will be passed out in the coming weeks. Wanted posters of Taliban figures soon will be seen in Kandahar — an effort, U.S. military officials say, to show that they are individuals, not myths or ghosts to fear.

After hearing of weapons seizures, some villagers have put guns and ammunition out on the street like garbage so they are not caught with weapons in a subsequent raid. Afghan and coalition forces also are uncovering Soviet-era bombs, including some the Taliban have packed with new explosives.

In November, residents tipped pro-government forces to a 500-pound bomb in a cemetery in Arghandab.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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