The arrival of a Marine unit raises hopes that NATO will finally tame the violent south. But many Taliban fighters are returning after a winter lull.
April 13, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN Ś For weeks now, the men in black turbans have been coming. They travel in pairs or small groups, on battered motorbikes or in dusty pickups, materializing out of the desert with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers slung from their shoulders.
With the advent of warmer weather, villagers say, Taliban fighters are filtering back from their winter shelters in Pakistan, ensconcing themselves across Afghanistan's wind-swept south.
"Every day we see more and more of them," said Abdul Karim, a farmer who had sent his family away for safety.
The insurgents aren't the only ones girding for battle.
At the country's main NATO base outside Kandahar, nearly 2,300 U.S. Marines have arrived in the last two months, their presence heralded by the nonstop thunder of transport aircraft and the sprawling tent city springing up on a newly cleared minefield.
The Marine force's final elements arrived days ago and last week began deploying, aiming to bolster British, Canadian and Dutch troops who have been bearing the brunt of fighting in the country's south, considered the conflict's strategic center of gravity.
The conflict in Afghanistan recently has loomed increasingly large in policy debate.
It dominated discussions at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit last month, where President Bush pledged to send more troops and pointedly urged allies to do likewise. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates heard urgent appeals for reinforcements from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, who forecast a substantial upsurge in fighting.
In Afghanistan, where presidential elections are due next year, opinion surveys consistently suggest that a solid majority of the population supports the presence of foreign forces. But people don't want them to stay on indefinitely, and an inconclusive spring "fighting season" could try public patience.
The first-time arrival in the south of a large force of Marines, the 24th Expeditionary Unit based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., has provided what commanders say is a much-needed infusion of firepower. The Marines have doubled the coalition's air capacity; Harrier jump jets, lumbering cargo planes and combat helicopters line the freshly laid tarmac.
Just as crucially, commanders say, Marines' deployment may at last give NATO-led troops the muscle and reach to choke off the flow of Taliban fighters and weaponry into neighboring Helmand province, consistently the most violence-racked in Afghanistan. It is the country's epicenter of opium production and narco-trafficking, whose enormous profits help fuel the insurgency.
In this unforgiving environment, British troops, considered to be among the alliance's most effective fighters, have been forced to confine their efforts largely to the province's northern tier, making the south of Helmand, with its plethora of infiltration routes from Pakistan, a likely zone of deployment for the Marines.
Although allied commanders express satisfaction with the battlefield edge the Marines will bring, the Taliban professes unconcern.
"We have heard all about these Americans, and we are waiting -- let them come," said a Taliban field commander, reached by phone in the Panjwai district outside Kandahar. "They will learn what others before them have learned."
The insurgents boast that they will blend tried-and-true methods with deadly refinements. Beaten badly in previous large-scale frontal assaults on NATO-led troops, Taliban fighters vow to harry them with more powerful and sophisticated roadside bombs, unrelenting suicide attacks and methodical targeting of Afghans who are helping the coalition forces.
Coalition commanders are well aware that the Taliban will try to steer the conflict toward small-scale hit-and-run strikes, but say it is they, not the insurgents, who will seize the initiative.
"They definitely don't want to go toe-to-toe with us," said Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the Marine expeditionary force now operating out of the Kandahar base.
NATO officials like to point out that even during a period of resurgence over the last two years, Taliban fighters have failed to seize substantial population centers or hold large swaths of territory for long.
But it's not clear whether the insurgents want to do so; instead, they rely on the classic guerrilla tactic of scattering when confronted, then reappearing when it suits them.
Many Taliban fighters are essentially part-timers; villagers say the ranks of locally recruited insurgents will swell in coming weeks after the opium poppy crop has been planted.
With fighting seemingly poised to escalate, one major worry for the coalition is civilian casualties, which spiked during combat last spring. At that time, human rights groups charged that Western troops sometimes too readily called in airstrikes when under attack, obliterating village compounds that might not have contained only insurgents, if any.
Coalition commanders, in turn, have expressed continued frustration with what they describe as insurgents' willful endangering of civilians by launching attacks from within their midst, combined with what they say is the common practice of reporting their own battle dead as civilians.
During the winter months, with harsh weather bringing a relative lull in fighting, the coalition has made a concerted effort to hunt down Taliban field commanders, either capturing them or killing them in pinpoint airstrikes. They describe the mid-level to upper leadership ranks as having been decimated by this campaign.
But senior Western military officials acknowledge that many of these leaders have been swiftly replaced, in some cases by younger and even more ruthless commanders.
"It's a new generation we are seeing, capable of the worst kind of atrocities," said Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, spokesman of the NATO-led force.
Last week, insurgents slaughtered 17 Afghan road workers in neighboring Zabol province. In response, Afghan and coalition forces hunted down and killed two dozen Taliban blamed for the attack, military officials said Saturday.
Part of the Western alliance's overall strategy is to turn more of the fighting and policing over to the long-troubled Afghan security forces.
American trainers believe they are turning a corner. Recruitment, pay and morale are all up, they say. But although Afghan security forces have played a more prominent role in policing and battlefield engagements over the last year, serious problems remain.
For example, Afghan forces are assigned whenever possible for house searches, an intimate and culturally charged encounter that has inflamed resentment when carried out by foreign troops. However, commanders acknowledge that without careful monitoring, looting sometimes occurs during such Afghan-conducted searches.
Moreover, the Taliban find Afghan police a "softer" target than coalition troops and have killed scores in suicide strikes. Senior police officials matter-of-factly say they believe the insurgents have marked them for death.
"The Taliban have warned me so many times to leave this job," said Haji Saifullah, the district police commissioner in Maywand, a district of Kandahar province that borders Helmand and has become an insurgent stronghold. "They want to plant a roadside bomb, or send a suicide bomber, or shoot me," he said. "So far they haven't succeeded."
Longtime observers of the conflict say that even if the insurgents' strength is flagging, a protracted battle probably lies ahead.
"I think the Taliban are not as strong as in the past," said Haji Dad Mohammad, a Kandahar-based former militia leader who sometimes serves as an intermediary between the government and insurgents. "But still, the fighting will go ahead."