Saturday, December 20, 2003

GERESHK, Afghanistan — U.S. forces say they face an uphill battle for the hearts and minds of Afghans in the Taliban’s impoverished southern homeland.

“As soon as we leave the base, we see lights flashing down the highway for miles,” said a senior officer based in Gereshk, 75 miles west of Kandahar in Helmand province. “Whenever we enter the town, the horns start hooting. The enemy intelligence network is on top of every move we make.”

Military analysts and aid-agency bosses agree that southern Afghans are growing increasingly resentful of American forces in their country and offering increased support to a resurgent Taliban.

“The Taliban are getting stronger. They’re regrouping, reorganizing, and we’re getting a lot of fire right now,” said Sgt. Ken Green, a National Guardsman assigned to U.S. Special Forces.

“We’ve racked up over 1,000 kills in just the last five weeks, mostly by air, putting B-52s over [them] and bombing … them.”

In a significant switch in strategy, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan said yesterday that American troops will set up bases to provide reconstruction aid in provinces plagued by Taliban attacks.

Lt. Gen. David Barno told the Associated Press that the move will make the troubled south and east safer for aid workers and open the way for landmark Afghan elections next summer. He also predicted a sharp reaction from insurgents.

They’re “going to realize that’s the death knell to terrorist organizations in that part of the country,” Gen. Barno said. “We’ll be prepared for that.”

U.S. officials say that the 10,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and their 170 international allies, have been attacked more times in the past three months than in the previous year.

Officially, 18 American soldiers have been killed this year and 20 wounded, mostly along the rugged border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s leaders are believed to have found refuge.

“We’re trying to get the country to a stable point, and part of that is, you have to kill the bad guys,” said Capt. Ed Croot, the commander in Gereshk. Yet, the “bad guys” keep coming.

As in Iraq, those Afghans who work with the Americans are also finding themselves targets. The corpses of two Afghan informers were brought to the base in Gereshk last month. They had been shot in the head.

The killings followed a battle between members of a U.S.-financed militia and the local police force, in which around 40 civilians were killed, according to officials at the small Special Forces base in Gereshk, the center of U.S. operations in Helmand province.

The battle began after the militia’s leader, Mohamed Edris, was shot to death by the town’s police chief. The militiamen claimed Mr. Edris had been killed because he had captured 22 suspected Taliban members in the previous six months.

“Ninety percent of the people here used to work in the Taliban government,” said one militiaman, Jalil Ahmed. “Of course, they tell the Americans they’re glad that they’re here, but it’s not true. They are not happy. They don’t want the Americans here.”

Nevertheless, U.S. forces are taking the battle to the enemy in places like Musa Quleh, about 80 miles northwest of Kandahar, where more than 150 U.S. Special Forces troops staged raids late last month to retaliate for the death in an Oct. 30 ambush of Staff Sgt. Paul Sweeney.

“They’ve gone in to Musa Quleh because of Paulie, and you wouldn’t believe the things they’re finding — arms, rockets, mortars, lots of bad stuff,” said a U.S. soldier in Gereshk. “That’s a bad place. There’s a lot of Taliban around there.”

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