HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan – Hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops pushed into insurgent-dominated areas west of Kandahar city early today, hoping to establish a foothold not far from the area where the Taliban movement was born.
The assault south of the main highway in the Zhari district by elements of the 101st Airborne Division was aimed at cutting off routes that insurgents use to move fighters, explosives and drugs into Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city.
The operation, which involves parts of three U.S. battalions, as well as British engineers deployed to help clear hidden bombs, is one of the biggest troop actions in a months-long military campaign in the region. Stabilizing the area is one of the main objectives this year, U.S. commanders say.
Since its acceleration this summer, the Kandahar plan has run into repeated delays as insurgents have fought back and a U.S.-Afghan government effort to bring power, jobs and other services has proceeded more slowly than promised.
Western Zhari, an area roughly the size of Little Rock, Ark., is likely to see those difficulties deepen because loyalty to the Taliban runs deep here.
The Taliban in the area “has a lot of foot soldiers, and I think these guys intend to fight,” said Lt. Col. Peter N. Benchoff, the 101st battalion commander leading the operation.
Western Zhari has no permanent Afghan government presence, no open schools and no medical clinics, except for a primitive pharmacy in the local bazaar. The Afghan army battalion that is working with Benchoff’s soldiers arrived only last month, and it is a long way from being able to handle security on its own.
“They’ve got brand-new soldiers and brand-new junior officers,” Benchoff said of the Afghan unit. “Right now, they are deferring more to us.”
The U.S. base hugging the highway is regularly hit by mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades. Three contractors working on the base were killed last week in a mortar attack.
Two miles south of the U.S. base is the village of Sangsar, the place where, in early 1994, Mullah Mohammed Omar, then an obscure local cleric, reportedly ordered a warlord who had raped two teenagers to be hanged from the barrel of a tank in the village square.
The Taliban movement that arose from that event eventually took control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Today, the one-eyed Omar is believed to be hiding in nearby Pakistan – as is bin Laden – and still presiding over the council of Taliban leaders who direct the insurgency in Afghanistan.