KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – At Kandahar Airfield, medics in the trauma ward waited for a helicopter ferrying four soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, wounded by a mortar round that hit their combat outpost in Arghandab district, just north of here.
These four soldiers survived the attack last week, but another one of the 2-508’s paratroopers who arrived just the day before wasn’t as lucky. Spc. Brendan P. Neenan, 21, of Enterprise, Ala., was killed by an IED. His casket, along with those of three Marines who drowned when their vehicle flipped over into an irrigation ditch on June 6, was carried in an armored vehicle along Kandahar Airfield’s airstrip, draped in an American flag. Marines and paratroopers saluted solemnly as the caskets were loaded onto a C-130 for the flight back to the U.S.
These are some of the first casualties of an "offensive" in southern Afghanistan that the military has suddenly grown reluctant to call an “offensive.” It has begun quietly, with the U.S.-led NATO force here seemingly confused about whether the operation is about bringing “governance” to Kandahar or clearing areas of insurgents. What is clear is that the slow trickle of wounded and the dead back to America has started. Fifty-three NATO troops have died so far this month — if the pace continues, it will be the deadliest month since the Afghan war began.
Thousands of American troops have arrived as part of a build up to secure Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city. It is the epicenter of the country’s Pashtun south and the Taliban’s spiritual home. Officials at U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, or ISAF, say the goal of the troop increase is to stabilize Kandahar and the surrounding area. In terms of security, that means denying the Taliban the ability to assassinate and intimidate Afghans here. The Kandahar operation is more like a “cooperation,” officials say.
The choice of words is presumably intended to calm citizens’ nerves about a violent onslaught like the offensive in Marjah. And officials are very quick to point out that this operation is not Marjah.
Although the “cooperation” was planned to be in full swing by this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has said the offensive will take longer than planned, and will last into the fall. That may stem from lessons learned in trying to fill governmental void after the counterinsurgency clearing operations in Marjah. It has proven harder than expected to set up a meaningful governmental structure there, and the Taliban continues to harass Marjahs’s residents and to attack U.S. troops, according to news reports and analysts.
Whatever the spin put on the operation in Kandahar, the bottom line is that about 25,000 U.S. troops are flooding into this area over the next few months, and they will be settled and ready to go in about four to six weeks.
The goal, says Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of ISAF’s Regional Command South, is to connect the people with their government. There will be times of more “kinetic” activity, to use the military parlance, but commanders play down reporters query's about the “clearing” phase of counterinsurgency operations. That’s another code word for the point in a campaign when most of the killing is done.
But there will inevitably be more American and Afghan blood than the slow trickle that started last week in Kandahar; already the numbers of wounded and dead are increasing on both sides. And there may perhaps be much more of it in this “offensive” that dare not say its name.
The plan to secure Kandahar involves two complimentary rings, according to military briefings provided to reporters here.
First, ISAF troops are being deployed in an attempt to saturate the three districts surrounding the city to the north and west, Zhari Arghandab and Panjaway, with troops. Each district is about the size of a midwestern American county and contains areas where the Taliban maintains control and can infiltrate into the city along the Arghandab River. The plan is to cut off the Taliban supply lines and to deny them territory from which to intimidate and terrify people in the city and its environs.
The most likely place for a kinetic, or violent, traditional military operation is in Zhari district, where the 2nd brigade of the 101st Airborne has been setting up shop over the last three weeks. They arrived to relieve the 1st battalion, 12 Infantry regiment of the 4th infantry division. The 1/12 had around 1100 troops there until May 2010. A brigade of the 101st should be between 3,000 and 5,000 troops. The 2nd brigade, 101st Airborne’s headquarters will be at the main base in the district, which, as recently as the beginning of 2009, was home to only a company of Canadian soldiers, about 150 men.
Troops at the base call Western Zhari district the “Heart of Darkness.” Frank Ruggiero, the senior U.S. State Department representative in ISAF’s Regional Command south, says the district is 90 percent controlled by the Taliban. The unit was hit hard by IEDs.
So, as U.S. troops move into areas where ISAF troops haven’t been in years, will the Taliban melt away to fight another day? They can plant IEDs in the meantime, their weapon of choice. There were 580 IED “events” in southern Afghanistan last month, according to the counter-IED unit at the ISAF’s Regional Command South. Incidents are increasing as more troops arrive.
Or, will the Taliban dig in and fight, as they did when the Canadians mounted a similar offensive, called Operation Medusa, in 2006? In that offensive the Taliban had dug in for World War I type trench warfare. The area is almost certainly mined with hundreds of IEDs. Will the Taliban make a stand again?
So far, the date being thrown around for the beginning of the so-called “clearing” operations, which will include pushing into and taking territory currently held by or where the Taliban are able to move freely, is early to mid-July.
Then, a break for Ramadan in August with clearing operations resuming in September and finishing by the end of that month. During this period, Carter says his command will be trying to build government capacity; which means, getting elders to attend “shuras,” the Afghan versions of city council meetings.
Carter says if shuras are eventually representative of the main interest groups of the area, be it out in the districts or in the city, then he will judge the operation to be successful. He says if people feel safe enough to come to the shuras, then that means the areas are secure from Taliban intimidation and assassination.
Those are tactics the Taliban has been employing against people who are cooperating with the international troops in and around the city of Kandahar. The Taliban will almost certainly not confront the U.S. forces head-on in the city. In the populated, urban areas, 25 security checkpoints will be manned by Afghan police and American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne. These posts will form the inner “security belt” around Kandahar city, controlling key routes and strategic areas. The construction on the security strong points started earlier this month. U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cook, an architect helping to design the security locations, hopes 16 will be finished by the beginning of July.
Each will host a squad of Americans soldiers with Afghan police and army personnel. In the meantime, attacks continue to grow. In Arghandab district, north of Kandahar, the U.S. allied district leader was killed in a car bomb earlier this week. He had been held up as a positive force in an area where several villages have stood up security forces to beat back Taliban advances. At the combat trauma ward in the new, state-of-the-art hospital complex at Kandahar Airfield, the casualties continue to mount.
“There have only been there or four days when we didn’t’ have a casualty in the four months I’ve been here,” said U.S. Navy Commander Michael Mullins, who runs the tactical operations center at the hospital.
“It’s a really good day when nobody dies,” he says. The American flags at Kandahar Airfield fly most days at half-mast. That means an American service member’s body is on base, waiting to be transported back to the U.S.
But in the end it is the Afghans who have suffered the most and who will continue to suffer. On the morning of June 13, U.S. Special Forces soldiers flew three Afghan policeman who had been hit by an IED to the trauma unit. Two were conscious. One was not moving.
“He’s been static for the last two minutes,” said the American medic. The doctors worked on the Afghan police officer for 20 minutes. They cut open his chest and a doctor massaged the man’s heart, trying to get it pumping again. But at some point it became hopeless. The eyes weren’t responding to light. Life had left him.
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces in the region, has warned of increased casualties this summer and fall as US troops flood into Afghanistan. Military and civilian officials on the ground say the Kandahar operation in Kandahar should show results by November.
In an interview, Maj. Gen. Carter emphasized the need for patience in counterinsurgency operations like these. “It’s a frustrating business, because it takes time, and it’s about managing people’s perceptions,” he said.
Troops and money are two factors that American and coalition countries have been willing to sacrifice in order to give McChrystal’s strategy a chance. But more time appears to be a harder commodity to acquire as troops lives are sacrificed and the public sees few concrete gains.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a reference to the military base in Zhari and to add a reference to the number of troops killed this month.