Afghan, NATO forces brace for spring offensive

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

Kandahar: 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 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 hideouts, kill and detain their 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 murder and intimidation campaign.

"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. 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."

Militants did just that Friday in another blast heard around the city. A suicide bomber rammed his car into the home of Kandahar Provincial Police Chief Khan Mohammad. He survived that attack, which came three days after a mine exploded just as the police chief`s 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, insurgents 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 the insurgents` momentum.

Last summer, after the 40,000 mostly U.S. reinforcements 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 the more than 9-year-old war.
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.

No one knows if the troops can maintain their current grip on the area. The Taliban are outgunned by the thousands of Afghan and coalition forces in Kandahar province, but just one targeted killing — like the assassination of the deputy governor of Kandahar — is a psychological setback to pro-government troops.

Garcia likens 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 didn`t stick 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.

Bureau Report