In southern Afghanistan, even the small gains get noticed
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
ZARI, AFGHANISTAN -- Four of the Army's hulking mine-resistant armored vehicles had just been bombed into submission.
They stood immobilized off of Highway 1, southern Afghanistan's most important thoroughfare, at the point where an earlier bomb had blown out the asphalt, forcing traffic to bypass through the dirt. At the same time, Taliban fighters were reeling a wire used to detonate bombs into a mud-walled compound.
But right at the top of Lt. Col. Jeffrey French's list of concerns that perilous day, when 14 bombs either exploded or were found in the same area, was the row of Afghan cargo trucks waiting to get past this complicated mess.
"I don't want to be piling up massive amounts of coalition force vehicles," French radioed to his soldiers before leading his convoy out of the congestion.
For the Fifth Stryker Brigade Combat Team, deployed around the southern city of Kandahar, the mission is to preserve freedom of movement on the highways through southern Afghanistan. By doing so, they hope to fan to life the economic and political embers smoldering in roadside villages around Kandahar and restore credibility to the local government.
Their mission is a key part of the new strategy for southern Afghanistan, where most of President Obama's 30,000 reinforcements are to deploy. By establishing a cordon of coalition forces around Kandahar, commanders hope to protect the people and the flow of commerce, while pulling troops away from less populated areas in the south.
Not everyone is sold on Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's "protect the population" mantra. Some military officials think an expansionary push by the Marines into Taliban territory in neighboring Helmand province is more effective than hunkering down to the slow work of improving governance.
"I'm not a big fan of the population-centric approach. We can't sit still. We have to pursue and chase these guys," said Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand province. "I haven't seen any evidence it's working. The only thing that's working is chasing them."
Marines in Helmand province, where thousands of new troops have already arrived, plan to start moving into Taliban strongholds such as Marja. The town is without a functioning government, and is ringed by what Marine commander Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, who has led the Marines in Helmand since last spring, described as the thickest belt of buried bombs he has seen in Afghanistan.
But some U.S. officials are worried about the value of the Marines pushing into desolate areas in pursuit of the Taliban, particularly in Nimruz province, which borders Helmand to the west. "There is nobody out there," said one senior U.S. official who works in southern Afghanistan. "The preference would be to remain focused on civilian population centers."
Pounded by bombs
The Strykers came to their new highway mission after difficult months last summer and fall in the Argandab River Valley of Kandahar province, fertile farmland where the vehicles had difficulty maneuvering through narrow lanes and were pounded by roadside bombs. Twenty-one soldiers from the battalion that fought in the Argandab were killed through December, more than any other Army battalion in Afghanistan.
"Back in the summer, it was awful. They had a bad time of it," said Brig. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the deputy commander in southern Afghanistan.