- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

Two months before Afghan civilians head to the polls, U.S. military reinforcements have mounted an offensive against a growing Taliban insurgency that is threatening to destabilize the upcoming presidential elections.

Still, clinics, schools and other facilities have refused to let the government set up polling stations out of fear they will be targeted by the Taliban and tribal leaders in the dangerous southern, western and eastern provinces.

The U.S. offensive, launched shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday in the western Helmand province, was the first step in a campaign that aims to strike at the heart of the Afghan Taliban. As 4,000 U.S. Marines debarked from helicopters in the searing hot insurgent-controlled territory, it became apparent that quelling the Taliban’s growth would not be easy.

The offensive - named Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword - led to the death of one Marine, and several others were injured on the first day of the assault. It was the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

Within hours, the Marines captured the Khanishin district in the province, Agence France-Presse reported.

The U.S. military also announced that suspected Taliban insurgents were believed to have captured an American soldier in eastern Afghanistan. A Taliban commander, Mullah Sangeen, told Reuters news agency by phone that the soldier was taken as a patrol walked out of its base in Paktika province and would only be released when the U.S. military freed Taliban fighters.

The U.S. offensive comes in the middle of the campaign for the Aug. 20 election, in which President Hamid Karzai faces dozens of rivals, chief among them former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

“First, at a technical level the preparations are going well, with some glitches,” said a European official who is involved in the election. The official spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation and for security reasons.

“For example, a few days ago the Ministry of Public Health officially refused to allow their clinics to be used as polling stations for fear of disruption of medical services as well as violence and destruction of their premises.”

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health could not be immediately reached for comment due to the time difference and late hour in that country.

The region, which is the largest area of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, is made up mainly of Pashtun tribes, similar to other areas of the southern and eastern provinces, and plays an important role in getting Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun, re-elected for his second term.

Resentment against U.S. operations has intensified among farmers and locals in the southern and western regions since last summer when The Times first visited the region. A resident of Helmand told The Times by telephone that the increased civilian deaths and uncertainty of international security efforts have led many of the people there to shift their loyalty to the Taliban.

“Even if [the farmers and locals] didn’t want the Taliban in control they still feel vulnerable,” said Abdul, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, for fear of retribution. “They have lost many of their loved ones in air strikes and they don’t trust that international forces will protect them. They turn to Taliban for security.”

However, Afghan, European, U.S. government and military officials told The Times that the current U.S.-led offensive is a necessary measure in curtailing the Taliban’s growing strength and that it is part of the “near term” goal to break apart the various Taliban groups who are threatening violence, in an attempt to disrupt the election.

“In order to have security we have to change the dynamic on the ground,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said. “The near-term goal for this offensive is to provide free and fair secure elections in the south, west and eastern provinces.”

Christine Fair, a senior political scientist at the research think tank Rand Corp. who specializes in the internal security environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that “the Taliban are consolidating their hold and they’re expanding into new territory,” making it difficult for U.S. and international forces to gain control of the region.

Ms. Fair, who recently returned from Afghanistan, said the Taliban “have a much lower bar” to meet with the people than that of the U.S.-led international security forces.

“They only have to be cohesive, and placate some basic concerns for the locals,” she said. “In a sense, they actually provide expeditious justice - basic stuff, like land disputes, marriage disputes. The Taliban are able to get in there and fix this stuff. No one is going to mess around with a Taliban verdict. In contrast, the international security forces have to secure, clear and build” the regions.

If Afghans do cooperate with international and U.S. security forces, explained Ms. Fair, “as soon as everyone leaves they are going to have to pay the price to the Taliban.”

“The Afghans don’t want to be on the losing side,” Ms. Fair added. “They want to be on the side of the winner.”

She said the Afghans do not have many incentives to side with the U.S. “In reality, there is no obvious fix to it. … You can build Afghan security forces, but can you build a competent, capable, non-corrupt Afghan government?”

Mr. Morrell said the eastern and southern provinces, particularly Helmand and Kandahar, considered the spiritual center of the Taliban, are the particular areas where the military operations - current and future - will be focused.

“The biggest challenge will be in the south,” he said. “I don’t think anyone on the ground has any doubt that the Taliban will try to destabilize the situation. The Taliban is bent on fear, intimidation and terror to dissuade Afghans from participating in the democratic process.”

Currently there are 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 34,000 non-U.S. allied troops. President Obama has ordered in 21,000 U.S. troops, which will bring the number to roughly 68,000 before the end of this year. The recent offensive, under newly appointed U.S. Commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is part of a much larger deployment of troops being ordered to fight the Taliban.

British forces have also been engaged in heavy fighting in the southern and western provinces. In early June, a British-led offensive in Helmand ended in the death of Mullah Mansur, considered by some to be one of the most dangerous Taliban leaders in the province.

On Thursday, the British commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards was killed in Helmand province, becoming the most senior commander killed in action since the Falklands war 27 years ago, the Associated Press reported.

Lt.-Col. Rupert Thorneloe, 39, who commanded the Welsh Guards, was killed while traveling as a passenger in the back of a Viking armored vehicle in Helmand. He had been visiting troops who were engaged in combat throughout the year in the province.

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