06 May 2009

A new beginning in Wardak province?

A U.S. soldier kept watch from an outpost in the Jalrez Valley. American commanders think insurgents may try to reassert themselves in the area once the snows melt in the mountain passes. Photo: Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal.

About a year ago, a handful of US soldiers were tasked with holding down the entire Wardak province. (To understand the impossibility of that task, read this.) Now, thousands of troops led by the 10th Mountain's TF Spartan have a chance of making real progress.

Michael Phillips of The Wall Street Journal has written a good, solid article about the challenges facing the Task Force and what they've achieved so far.

"I'm optimistic, but I have to look at the worst-case scenarios," said Col. David Haight, commander of the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, whose 3,500 troops were sent in the closing months of the Bush administration to bolster the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

U.S. officers here believe the surge forces will provide enough troops to pursue aggressive counterinsurgency tactics in the country's most volatile areas. That means not only clearing contested villages and valleys, but also leaving troops in place to keep insurgents at bay. Previously, U.S. troops left swaths of the country untouched and would fight their way in to others, but couldn't stay long enough to prevent the Taliban and other insurgent groups from returning. ...

When Col. Haight arrived in February, he split his forces between Logar and Wardak provinces. To the latter, he dispatched the Second Battalion of the 87th Infantry Regiment and a smaller artillery battalion, bringing the total U.S. force there to some 1,400 soldiers, on top of two Afghan National Army battalions totaling about 800 men.

The 2-87 commander, Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, a 43-year-old from Frankfurt, Ky., dedicated his entire force to taking eastern Wardak. The west of the province is populated largely by members of the Hazara ethnic group, who are generally friendly to the government and its coalition allies. Its east is heavily peopled by Pashtun, who form the foundation of the insurgency.

Lt. Col. Gallahue decided to take one valley at a time, prying the insurgents away from the villages and leaving a company of soldiers in each major valley to keep the peace. The Afghan government suggested he start with the Jalrez, which has 75,000 people and sits astride an important if heavily decayed stretch of road that runs west to Herat and eventually Iran. ...

Taking advantage of the calm, construction crews funded by the Italian government are preparing to pave the valley's pitted dirt road. Afghan and U.S. officials hope this will allow locals to more easily send apples to market in Kabul or Pakistan, and remind them that their interests lie with the government. ...

"I ask everybody to take a look at how things are going in the Jalrez," Lt. Col. Gallahue told Nerkh villagers over a hot cup of tea a couple of weeks ago. "Nerkh is next."

One middle-aged man complained about the lack of jobs. "Take a trip to Jalrez," the colonel responded. "We have a project to cobblestone the bazaar."

Two weeks ago, troops from Lt. Col. Gallahue's battalion helicoptered into the Tangi Valley, a dangerous stretch connecting Wardak and Logar provinces. His men encountered only light resistance and began providing food and supplies to the locals. Soon they expect to build an outpost to be jointly manned by U.S. and Afghan troops.

"We're in there to stay," the colonel said.

That speaks to locals' fears. "If the coalition left, the Taliban would come back and kill me and everyone else who worked with the U.S. government," Sayed Ali Abas, the 40-year-old commander of a new U.S.-backed neighborhood-watch brigade in Jalrez, said recently.

There's much more at the link, including a photo gallery.

See also:
U.S. Takes Afghan Strategy to Villages
The War Through the Taliban's Eyes

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