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U.S. operations in Kandahar push out Taliban

In recent months, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials have stepped up efforts to tame the area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, used by the Taliban as a base to fire rockets and smuggle weapons.
Map of Kandahar in Afghjanistan
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post

Just hours later, Wesa had cobbled together a few hundred Afghan police, soldiers and intelligence officers, and sent them into Malajat, a move that surprised the Americans in Kandahar. The operation began with Afghan government forces capturing 11 insurgents, but the contingent was soon trapped in a minefield. Five Afghans were killed getting out.

Wesa emerged chastened from the operation, U.S. officials said. For a second run at Malajat, the solution was Razziq. On the border, he developed an outsize reputation - part Robin Hood, part warlord. He was a close ally of the Karzais with thousands of tribal warriors at his command. "If you need a mad dog on a leash, he's not a bad one to have," said a U.S. official in Kandahar.

U.S. troops hastily planned support and coordinated to have Afghan forces ring the neighborhood, while Razziq, cellphone and satellite phone in hand, roared up from the southern desert with a few hundred men. They arrested about 20 suspected insurgents and found scores of explosives.

There was little violence, but U.S. troops noted Razziq's style. At one point his men spotted a stolen Afghan police truck. They fired at it with a rocket-propelled grenade, which deflected off the truck, and exploded in the trees. Suddenly a man in white robes fell from the branches, himself blowing up when his suicide vest hit the ground, which then blew up the truck - a story that Razziq chuckles in recalling, U.S. officials said.

As this partnership has developed, Razziq has been partnered with a U.S. Special Forces commander to help coordinate his moves. He's been called on elsewhere, including particularly treacherous parts of the Argandab valley, where whole villages had been rigged with explosives that had made them impenetrable to previous American units.

The Afghan operations have stunned U.S. troops, accustomed to years of prodding along their reluctant allies. At 3 a.m. on Sept. 15, Capt. Mikel Resnick, a company commander in Argandab, learned that 1,000 Afghan forces were moving into his area. "I don't know if they're going to go burn the orchards down and leave me to clean it up," he said of his initial reaction to the plan.

The Afghans, who took 72 hours to capture 50 detainees, five large bombs and 500 pounds of explosives, required only advice and air support from the Americans, said Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, the battalion commander at the Argandab district center.

"We basically sat in here and monitored the fight," Resnick said, referring to his outpost at the village of Sarkari Bagh. "They essentially cleared this entire place out."

U.S. military officials acknowledge that it is not ideal to have the border police leading the operation, because the goal is for the Afghan army and police to provide security in their own areas.

"We need to make sure this is not undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government," said a senior NATO military official in southern Afghanistan.

รข??The fight in Kandahar, unlike the previous U.S.-led operation in Marja, has also benefited from a more intensive campaign by U.S. Special Operations forces to hunt down Taliban commanders and bomb-making networks before the infantry push.

The local victims

During the Kandahar operation, Americans have unleashed ferocious air bombardments. In some parts of the Argandab, U.S. troops discovered the Taliban had cleared out whole villages and rigged each house with homemade explosives. In one October operation to clear the way for Razziq's troops, American aircraft dropped about 25 2,000-pound bombs and twice as many 500-pound bombs, while also firing powerful rockets over the ridge from the Kandahar Air Field miles away.

"We obliterated those towns. They're not there at all," Martindale said. "These are just parking lots right now."

Martindale said civilians had long ago fled the Taliban-dominated area, and that the U.S. attacks did not cause civilian casualties - a claim that could not be independently verified.

Faced with the NATO and Afghan push, American commanders believe that many Taliban leaders have retreated to Pakistan, leaving lower-level fighters to stage attacks in Kandahar. Part of this appears to be the normal ebb of fighting in Afghanistan, as insurgents slow their tempo in the colder months.

Afghans living in Zhari and Panjwayi cited many complaints with the current operations, including homes and orchards damaged by American troops, no government support for the people and elusive Taliban guerrillas who dodge the conventional armies.

"Who are the victims of these operations? Just the local people. If the Taliban comes, the people suffer, if the foreign forces come, the people suffer," said Mohammad Rahim, a member of Panjwayi's district council. "The Taliban always leave, and the Taliban always come back."

Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran and special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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