A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base.
Some of the gains seem to have come from a new mobile rocket that has pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile — and has been used against the hideouts of insurgent commanders around Kandahar. That has forced many of them to retreat across the border into Pakistan. Disruption of their supply lines has made it harder for them to stage retaliatory strikes or suicide bombings, at least for the moment, officials and residents said.
NATO commanders are careful not to overstate their successes — they acknowledge they made that mistake earlier in the year when they undertook a high-profile operation against Marja that did not produce lasting gains. But they say they are making “deliberate progress” and have seized the initiative from the insurgents.
Western and Afghan civilian officials are more outspoken, saying that heavy losses for the Taliban have sapped the momentum the insurgency had in the area. Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.
“We now have the initiative. We have created momentum,” said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of the NATO coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, who has overseen the Kandahar operation for the last year. “It is everything put together in terms of the effort that has gone in over the last 18 months and it is undoubtedly having an impact.”
NATO forces have experienced setbacks in other parts of Afghanistan, and some military officials say the advances in Kandahar may not represent a turning point in the overall war effort. The Taliban, for example, have surprised the Americans by asserting control over some areas in the northern part of Afghanistan, from which they had once been almost entirely eliminated.
But Kandahar represents the heartland of the Taliban insurgency and is the main focus of the large influx of American troops and Afghan government forces. “Afghans will tell you, if you have a peaceful Kandahar, you will have a peaceful Afghanistan,” General Carter said. “I think only time will tell.”
The civilian and military effort in Kandahar has been 18 months in the planning. Only after thousands of extra troops were in place at the end of August — part of the surge of 30,000 troops President Obama ordered last year — did the operations finally begin producing results. The combined strength of 12,000 American and NATO troops and some 7,000 Afghan security forces in the province has meant that for the first time they are able to mount operations simultaneously in all of the most critical areas of the province.
Beginning in August, Afghan forces spearheaded a clearing operation in Mehlajat, on the southern edge of the city of Kandahar. Soon after, American forces pushed through much of Arghandab, a strategic rural district that leads into the city from the north. At the same time troops from the 101st Airborne Division moved into Zhare District to the southwest, where they initially encountered strong resistance.
By the middle of this month, forces were poised to retake the most nefarious area of all, the horn of Panjwai, an area 19 miles long and 6 miles wide where the Taliban had built up a redoubt of command posts, courts and mined areas over the last four years. Afghan and American troops mounted an airborne assault into the region last weekend.
Apparently surprised by the intensity of the strikes on their supply routes, bomb factories and command compounds, many Taliban commanders pulled out to Pakistan, and most of the fighters have also slipped away or hidden their weapons, NATO commanders, local residents and the Taliban themselves say.
Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, commanding Task Force 1-66 in Arghandab, said he had seen insurgent attacks drop from 50 a week in August to 15 a week two months later. That may be because of the onset of colder weather, when fighting tends to drop off, but Colonel Lemons said he felt the Taliban was losing heart.
“A lot are getting killed,” he said. “They are not receiving support from the local population, they are complaining that the local people are not burying their dead, and they are saying: ‘We are losing so many we want to go back home.’ ”
Military and civilian officials say there are also signs of a crisis in command as Taliban leaders have struggled to maintain logistics and supply routes, suicide bombers have failed to turn up for attacks, and even senior commanders were showing reluctance to follow orders from their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to go in to fight the NATO onslaught in Panjwai.
The Taliban have described their pullback as a tactical retreat, saying that fighters have gone to the city of Kandahar instead to conduct bombings and rocket attacks like those Saturday night outside the prison and the police station.
Yet residents say that the Taliban have been stunned by fast-paced raids on their leaders and bases. In particular they talk with awe of a powerful new rocket that has been fired from the Kandahar air base into Panjwai and other areas for the last two or three weeks, hitting Taliban compounds with remarkable accuracy.
The rocket curls and turns in the air as it zooms in on its target and sets off secondary explosions, often burning the trees and foliage around buildings, one landowner from the Panjwai District said.
In an interview, General Carter said the weapon the Afghans saw was most likely the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, a relatively new multiple rocket system. “They are extraordinarily precise; they are accurate to a meter,” he said.
A Taliban fighter reached by telephone, who spoke to a reporter only on condition that he not be named, confirmed that the insurgents had pulled back but would seek to reinfiltrate once the main push was over. “We are not there anymore, we are not preparing to fight a big battle, but we are waiting,” he said. “We are waiting until this force has been exhausted and has done all they are supposed to do, and later on our fighters will re-enter the area.”
But the Afghan police and officials say the Taliban have been severely weakened. “We broke their neck,” said Hajji Niaz Muhammad, the police chief in the Arghandab District. “There is no doubt they are very weak in this area now.”
The Snooper Report.
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