Les Neuhaus continues his coverage of operations in Afghanistan with this report.
As a three-week Afghan-led sweep of Taliban forces wrapped up in the country’s east on Sunday, U.S. military leaders and Afghan officials sat down with civilians to discuss snuffing out insurgent influence in the area.
During the operation, more than 6,000 Afghan and U.S. Army soldiers searched Afghanistan’s rugged Paktika province, and more specifically, Charbaron district, where Taliban rebels have put up stiff resistance to coalition forces.
“We’ve had tremendous fighting since I’ve been here,” said Capt. John Gibson, 30, who commanded a company from the 173rd’s Airborne Brigade Combat Team throughout Operation Attal.
“The Taliban’s influence was to the point that they were threatening to kill people who didn’t support them.”
At the meeting, mullahs, imams, parliamentarians and provincial leaders took turns speaking, repeating their pleas for the citizenry to stand up to Taliban influence.
“The Taliban can’t stay here unless someone is helping them, and they are getting help,” Afghan parliamentarian Khaled Farouqi said over a microphone to the elders, who were huddled under large tents. Farouqi represents portions of Paktika.
“This is government in action, at the local level,” said Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade, from the sidelines of the conference.
Schweitzer was asked to sit with the Afghan VIPs front and center, but politely declined. It is part of his continuing bid to push attention on to the Afghans themselves, so that the U.S. military can step back, and start letting the Afghans step up.
The 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, a 173rd unit, serves under his command. The men of the 503rd, normally based in Italy, undertook much of the responsibilities for the U.S. in Operation Attal.
At the shura, U.S. Air Force jet fighters screamed low above dancing Afghans kicking up dust as others beat drums. The mood seemed upbeat, even though more than 20 snipers were perched on ridge tops surrounding the heavily fortified tent complex set up for the conference.
Though 2007 has been the deadliest year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, commanders remain focused on the long-term goals.
“This shura represents the passion for nationalism that Afghans have in their country,” said Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel, 40, from the meeting.
Fenzel, commander of the 503rd’s 1st Battalion, said some of the 1,600 at Sunday’s meeting had walked nearly 20 miles to get there.
Read the rest of Les' report here.
And during a recent email exchange Les asked me to pass this message on to the families of the 173rd:
"Please also extend my warmest regards to those families of the 173rd that you speak with - they are great troops, so they must come from great families."
Warmest regards and Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Soldiers' Angels, too.
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