U.S.-led forces began one of the most important operations of the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan, meeting surprisingly little resistance as they swooped down on a district in the south that gave birth to the Taliban movement.
The offensive to secure the district of Zhari, just west of Kandahar city, is part of a push to stabilize the politically crucial province by the end of this year.
Three U.S. battalions, from the 101st Airborne Division, plus rangers, special forces and Afghan troops, moved into the insurgent-held "green zone" of Zhari, a strip of farmland that provides perfect cover for guerrilla fighting. Mullah Mohammad Omar founded the Taliban movement in 1994 in Singesar, a village in the west of Zhari that is one of the targets of the operation.
The offensive comes just ahead of Saturday's parliamentary election in Afghanistan, a day that is likely to be bloody, warned the top International Security Assistance Force commander in the south, Major-General Nick Carter.
"If it is like last year [the presidential elections] it will be a very violent day," Gen. Carter told reporters in Kandahar. "They [the Taliban] will want to make it violent enough for people to want to stay indoors."
With the U.S. troop surge now complete, ISAF commanders believe the autumn offers the best chance to take the fight to the insurgents, in an operation named Hamkari, before countries begin to withdraw soldiers next year and the current political unity in the international community dissipates.
Kandahar, a city of up to 700,000 people, is the hometown of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and also the place from which the Taliban ruled Afghanistan until their administration was toppled in 2001. It remains a dangerous city, with daily murders, kidnapping and intimidation by the insurgents.
The forces now assembled in Kandahar represent the greatest firepower that ISAF and Afghan forces have ever been able to deploy.
Their aim is to secure Kandahar province and challenge Taliban control of their strongholds west of Kandahar city, in Zhari and Panjwai. Canadian forces, which previously had responsibility for Zhari, are now consolidated in Panjwai. The United States has assembled about 2,400 combat troops for the Zhari operation, about the same number of fighting soldiers that Canada had for the whole of Kandahar.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers moved in toward the first target villages in Zhari early on Wednesday morning.
Major Antwan Dunmyer, of the 101st Airborne handling the area east of Zhari, said that a single IED, which was found and defused, was the only insurgent activity they came up against in the first few hours of the assault on the village of Makuan.
"I thought we would have seen more resistance than we had," Major Dunmyer said. "They knew we were coming, or they knew something was coming soon. Either they evacuated the area or became 'regular' citizens of Afghanistan."
The low-key nature of the Zhari operation stands in contrast to the offensive in Marjah, in the adjacent province of Helmand, which began in February in a blaze of publicity. ISAF appeared to have regretted the hype that surrounded the Marjah offensive. ISAF is throwing much greater muscle at Zhari than the district has seen over the past nine years, in the hope of preventing a repeat of the usual cycle of "clearing" an area, vacating it, only to see the Taliban return, Gen. Carter said.
It is unclear whether the Afghan government, led by district governor Karim Jan, is ready to bring services to the people of Zhari, which has only one functioning school - which is protected by an anti-Taliban warlord - and no clinics or hospitals.
ISAF believes that Kandahar city will never be secure unless the districts surrounding it are under control. In last year's presidential election, the most violent places in the southwere Zhari, Arghandab and Panjwai.
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