By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
NAWA, Afghanistan, July 6 -- Roadside bombings and a gun attack killed seven U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan on Monday, providing a grim reminder of the insurgency's resilience even as Marines moved to consolidate gains in their operation against the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand.
Four members of a U.S. military team training Afghan security forces died after a bomb struck their convoy near the northern city of Kunduz, according to American military officials. Northern Afghanistan has been relatively stable compared with other parts of the country, in part because much of the territory is under the control of anti-Taliban warlords. But violence has been increasing in recent months around Kunduz and other northern cities as Taliban fighters seek to exploit a thin presence of NATO forces in the area.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed in a bombing in the southern province of Zabul, the officials said. Another American soldier died after a firefight with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan. This was the deadliest day for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in nearly a year.
Three other NATO soldiers -- two Canadians and one Briton -- also were killed in Zabul on Monday when their helicopter crashed. And in neighboring Kandahar province, a suicide bomber detonated a car filled with explosives outside the gates of the primary NATO base in southern Afghanistan, killing two Afghan soldiers and a civilian and wounding 16 others.
Despite the violence elsewhere, the parts of southern Afghanistan that are the focus of a major Marine operation launched last week remained relatively quiet Monday. U.S. commanders believe many Taliban fighters have left areas of Helmand in which the Marines are operating because the insurgents were unprepared for the size of the mission, which involves about 4,000 U.S. troops.
"Coming in with overwhelming force really made a difference," said Lt. Col. William McCollough, the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment. His unit is responsible for trying to secure the Nawa district of Helmand, a verdant farming community along the Helmand River that has been in Taliban hands for the past few years.
Before the Marines arrived, about 40 British soldiers were deployed here. Now there are more than 750 Marines, and they are patrolling areas the British never visited.
"We've presented the Taliban with a larger and more lethal problem," McCollough said. "They're doing the sensible thing: They're trying to run away."
On Sunday, his unit apprehended a car full of young men driving out of the district. One of them carried a letter with instructions from a local Taliban leader to depart the area but to lay roadside bombs on the way out, McCollough said.
With Nawa eerily calm -- the almost daily attacks on the main patrol base in the town center stopped a week ago -- the Marines are trying to translate the improved security into lasting changes in the community. They want to reopen the school and clinic here, and they want the police to take a more active role in providing security. The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, flew in by helicopter for a brief visit to the base Monday to reinforce that message.
"We have got to convince the people of Afghanistan that they'll get a better deal with the government than with the Taliban," he told leaders of McCollough's battalion. "The decisive terrain now is not geographical; it's in the minds of the people."
Although the Marines are taking charge of initial governance and reconstruction projects, they are hoping to hand off much of that work to civilian experts who are supposed to arrive over the next several months.
Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the commander of all Marine forces in Helmand, said his troops understand that there is a "narrow window to bring about change."
"Thirty days from now, the people will say, 'Okay. Great. You've cleared the Taliban out. Now what's in it for me?' " Nicholson said.
As part of its efforts to win the favor of Afghans, the military released guidelines Monday requiring U.S. and NATO forces to "scrutinize and limit" the use of airstrikes against residences, which the Taliban can use as shelters. The guidelines are in response to deep anger among Afghans over the issue of civilian casualties.