Can US Military Maintain Helmand Progress?

Local residents willing to give qualified approval to Operation Khanjar, but there’s a long way to go before it can be termed a success.

Can US Military Maintain Helmand Progress?

Local residents willing to give qualified approval to Operation Khanjar, but there’s a long way to go before it can be termed a success.

It is all too rare a phenomenon lately: local residents cheerful at the sight of foreign troops. But Operation Khanjar (Dagger Thrust), which the United States Marines launched in early July in southern Helmand, has so far delivered on its promise to put protection of civilians ahead of killing the enemy.

“When the American forces first came to our village, we were very frightened,” said Mohammad Isaa, a resident of remote Khanshin district, which the Marines cleared just one day after the start of the operation.

“But there was no fighting, and no Taleban. The soldiers are just walking around, but they haven’t bothered anybody yet. They are not searching houses. They tell people that they are here for our security, so we can participate in the [presidential] elections. They also said, ‘If you don’t make problems for us, we will never make problems for you.’ We are very happy now.”

Khanshin, one of Helmand’s largest but least populated districts, is mostly desert. Villages are scattered throughout, most boasting just a bazaar with a few dozen shops. It is one of five districts targeted in Operation Khanjar, the others being Nawa, Garmsir, Dishu, and Marja.

Assadullah Sherzad, the provincial chief of police, said that Nawa, Garmsir and Khanshin were now clear and stable.

“In those areas that we have cleared, we have established security checkpoints,” he told reporters. “The police have been able to keep those areas clear of the Taleban.”

Operation Khanjar has met very little resistance since it got under way early in July; the overwhelming firepower of the US forces doubtless had the Taleban thinking better of a face-to-face fight. But even more surprising than the lack of a counter-punch has been the reception given the troops by the Helmandis, who have been battered and let down over the past eight years.

“These Americans are very good people,” said Tak Mohammad from Nawa district. “They wave and speak to us in a very friendly way. And they have helped us finally to get rid of these cruel oppressors.”

Chased out by the US-led invasion in 2001, the Taleban came back to Helmand in force in 2006. For the past three years, local residents have been buffeted by wave after wave of military operations that only managed to clear the target area for a few months. Along the way, they caused untold damage to property and livestock, as well as killing many non-combatants in air strikes or in raids based on mistaken identity.

Once the foreign forces moved on, the insurgents came back, often exacting revenge for any perceived collaboration with the enemy.

So it is understandable that the patience of the Helmandis is wearing thin. While they may be prepared to put up with some inconvenience if Operation Khanjar does free them permanently from the Taleban, they are unlikely to give the foreigners another chance if, once again, they are abandoned to their fate.

“The standard for a successful operation is if they clear an area and stay and hold it,” said retired army officer Abdul Jabar. “If they just clear an area and do not leave forces there, the opposition returns and things are even worse than before. It leaves a very bad impression with the community, and they go over to the insurgents because they see them as the dominant force.”

Jabar was sceptical about Operation Khanjar. The overwhelming force of the US Marines demonstrated a lack of understanding of the enemy, he said.

“Sure [the US] has a lot of troops, modern weaponry, artillery, tanks and an air force, but come on! This is an army for five provinces. The Taleban are not that powerful that you need to send so many soldiers to fight them,” Jabar said.

But, while the insurgents lack the firepower of their foreign foes, they have shown a remarkable capacity for survival, so it may be too soon to count them out entirely.

“The Taleban haven’t gone anywhere,” said a political analyst in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are here. Every one of them is in his place. They are not outsiders or foreigners. They are in the community.”

Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, spokesman for the Taleban, told IWPR that the battle was still to come.

“We have not yet started the fight,” he said. “We are launching our own operation, Puladi Jaal (Steel Net), in answer to Operation Khanjar. We will catch their ‘dagger’ in our ‘net’.”

Ahmadi acknowledged that the Taleban were not able to mount a frontal assault at this time, but insisted that they had more than enough tactical arrows in their quiver.

“We will use everything,” he said. “Rockets, missiles, suicide bombers, guerrilla attacks, and face-to-face fighting. This is war.”

One weapon the Taleban have used to great effect is the improvised explosive device, IED – the roadside bombs that target the vehicles the foreign forces drive.

“I do not mind if I am killed, provided that the Americans get rid of the Taleban this time,” said Sharaf, who had brought his injured son to Lashkar Gah from Nawa. “Those tyrants have taken my son’s leg. They laid mines on the roads. Don’t they see that these roads are also used by civilians?”

While keeping a low profile in the areas now controlled by the US Marines, the Taleban have put up a spirited fight in other parts of Helmand.

Rockets rain down almost daily on Lashkar Gah, although so far they have caused little damage.

More seriously, in the central and northern parts of the province, the British are facing a bitter and bloody battle as they carry out their own operation, Panjai Palang (Panther’s Claw).

But there are many who see the Taleban’s present quiescence in southern Helmand as a sign that they have lost their appetite for combat.

“If the Taleban are not resisting, it means they cannot fight any more,” said Ehsanullah Ehsan, a writer living in Lashkar Gah.

A former chief of police, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the Taleban were losing their spirit.

“The Taleban have lost their morale,” he said. “Our sources say that the insurgents are leaving Marja district, and have been ordered not to fight. They are afraid they will be killed.”

Nonsense, says Mullah Abdullah, a Taleban commander in Helmand.

“We have started our own operation, and we will continue until we kick the foreigners out,” he said in a telephone interview.

For now, Helmand residents and observers are willing to give qualified approval to Operation Khanjar, but there is a long way to go before it can be termed a success.

“People are withholding judgement,” said the political analyst in Lashkar Gah. “They cannot say whether this operation is good or bad. They are afraid that the forces will stay here for some days and then leave, so we will be alone with the Taleban again.”

Many are waiting to see what the Americans can bring in the way of real development.

“It is still just the beginning,” said Mullah Shin Gul from Nad Ali district. “The Americans need to begin reconstruction, by agreement with the people. They should establish centres here in the districts, and they should follow every single Taleban and kill him. In a short while it will be too late. The people will lose trust.”

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, looks much happier these days. He has been very optimistic about Operation Khanjar, and told a news conference in Lashkar Gah that as soon as the districts were cleared the government would re-launch voter registration, to give people a chance to participate in the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections.

“Everything is getting better,” he told reporters at the opening of a two-kilometre stretch of road inside Lashkar Gah. “In the near future Lashkar Gah will have stable electricity. The side roads will be paved. Everything will be fine.”

But many Helmandis are asking what will happen when the US forces leave, as they eventually will do.

Once the Afghan National Army, ANA, is able to take charge, say officials, it will instigate a system of house searches and checkpoints, which is sure to rile local residents.

“The Americans did not bother people this time,” said Mohammad Gul, a resident of Nawa district. “But if the ANA come and start searching people’s houses, they will face a very fierce reaction from people. Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, just do not like their houses being searched.”

Villagers are also complaining about the Afghan National Police, the ailing organisation that has been almost universally condemned for inefficiency and corruption.

“The police are bothering people,” said Fedaa, a resident of Nawa district. “They are stopping anyone with a turban or a long beard. They accuse them of being Taleban, and then they take bribes from them. We are very happy with the Americans and the Afghan army, but we hate the police.”

One tactic the Americans have implemented in their campaign for hearts and minds is the shura – the traditional village councils that dispense decisions for the community. By convening shuras, the US forces hope to demonstrate that they have come to help, rather than suppress, the local population.

But local people say there is some scepticism surrounding these gatherings.

“It is not important for the Americans to make shuras, where they deliver their deceptive speeches,” said the political analyst. “They have to prove their words with action. Only then will the people trust in them. The American shuras will gain credibility when they do something that the people can believe in. Otherwise it’s useless. I’m not saying that people won’t go – they will. But they will not listen.”

Of course, not everyone is happy about the presence of foreigners in this very traditional, very conservative province.

“Yesterday the American soldiers came to my house and said, ‘We are here for your security’,” said Hajji Sher Mohammad from Khanshin. “My son was standing behind me, drinking a glass of water. And the soldier said, ‘In a few days we will be digging wells for drinking water.’ I just told him, ‘We don’t want your drinking water. Go away and leave us alone. Your planes frighten my children, they cannot even go outside.’ We are God’s servants, and may His will be done. We cannot do anything, either with the Taleban or with these [Americans].”

Aziz Ahmad Shafe, Mohammad Ilyas Dayee and Aziz Ahmad Tassal are IWPR-trained reporters in Helmand.
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