KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – A major military operation involving hundreds of American troops, U.S. Special Forces and heavy bombers dropping 2,000-pound bombs on Taliban command and control centers wrapped up last week, concluding a critical phase in the campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province.
But no journalists were there to witness the operation.
U.S. military officials told journalists who had arrived to Kandahar Airfield for embeds in the Arghandab district between Oct. 1 and Oct. 15 that logistical problems had caused their embeds to be cancelled.
Maj. Randy Taylor, head of the Media Support Center at Kandahar Airfield, said the cancelled embeds were not an attempt by the military to limit media coverage of the war in the Arghandab district, long advertised by the U.S. military as one of three key objectives of this summer and fall's campaign in Kandahar province.
“[Task Force] Raider has had a capacity issue related to being able to house all the journalists who wanted to embed within their AO (Area of Operations),” Taylor said in an email. Task Force Raider is the name of the group of combat units responsible for the Arghandab district.
The New York Times, Agence France Presse, the military’s independent “Stars and Stripes” newspaper, Swedish Radio and several other freelance photographers and reporters were among the embeds canceled or changed just hours or moments before they were scheduled to join U.S. military units in Arghandab district.
The operation was one part of a new push that began in September into the rural areas west of Kandahar City, which includes Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai districts. All are traditional strongholds for the Taliban, who have long controlled parts of the region and whose fighters used the area as a kind of highway for movement of personnel and supplies.
A senior coalition official in southern Afghanistan, who asked his name not be used, said the offensive focused on the northwestern part of Arghandab district and, specifically, a village called Charqol Bah.The official described the village as a “command and control headquarters” for the Taliban.
The Arghandab River splits the farms and dense pomegranate groves of Arghandab district into two halves: east and west. U.S. forces based on the violent western side of the district during the last year have been hammered by near constant attacks on American bases. Improvised explosive devices have killed or maimed dozens of U.S. troops since they arrived last summer to help bolster the small Canadian force that had been responsible for Kandahar Province over the last four years.
This summer, one newly-arrived platoon of American soldiers to Arghandab district was declared combat ineffective in less than a month after losing eight men out of 17.
Last week’s operation focused on destroying the areas in western Arghandab district from which the Taliban mounted those attacks, regrouped, slept and built bombs.
The coalition official said the operation was “big army” in the classic sense. Artillery and other heavy weapons were employed, including bombers to drop thousands of pounds of explosives on bomb-making factories and other Taliban infrastructure. Long strings of explosives attached to rockets, called MICLICs, were used to clear mine-laden fields so troops could advance. Booby-trapped houses and compounds were also destroyed.
The official said U.S. and Afghan troops killed and detained dozens of Taliban fighters.
“The Taliban took a scrubbing,” he said.
A reporter embedded at an American base just over a chain of jagged mountains dividing the Arghandab district from Kandahar City said he saw attack helicopters flying overhead and at night saw what he thought were signs of explosions in the Arghandab Valley.
“Between the mountains I could see the sky light up,” said Richard Myrenberg of Swedish Radio.
Officials are calling the operation a success – a claim difficult to confirm since no journalists were there to witness it.
The day after the operation ended, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S.-led coalition commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry visited the Arghandab District Center, where the district government is located, alongside U.S. and Afghan military bases. They met with district officials and elders from the area.
The trip was touted as Karzai’s first visit to a district outside Kandahar City since becoming president in 2004.
“Arghandab is in a much better state than it was just six weeks ago,” said British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of all troops in the coalition’s Regional Command – South, which includes Arghandab district in Kandahar province.
Carter said the military operation was complimented by a focus on strengthening the local governing capacity of the Arghandab district. He said the district governor and a new police chief are more representative of the Arghandab’s tribal make-up and are proving successful at attempts to reach out to the district’s inhabitants in an effort to improve security.
“When you combine that with the need to conduct one or two clearing operations that took place over the last two calendar weeks, what you find in Arghandab is a more positive environment,” he said.
Carter said several indicators pointed toward Kandahar province improving in terms of security.
“In Arghandab now, it is easier for the district governor to go to the west bank of the Arghandab and to go to villages he wasn’t able to go to before by himself, without protection,” he said.
He also said travel on the key highway in the province is much safer than just a few months ago.
Carter acknowledged that the alleged success of the Arghandab district operation doesn’t mean the Taliban is beaten. The third phase of the Kandahar campaign, involving clearing areas in Zhari and Panjwai districts, called Operation Dragon Strike, is now underway and troops have faced stiff Taliban resistance in places.
Assassinations and other attacks have also plagued Kandahar City in recent weeks.
Saturday night a bomb killed one person and injured four near the police headquarters in Kandahar city. Two weeks ago at least nine people died in two separate bomb attacks near police stations. The same week, the vice mayor of Kandahar city was gunned down outside his office in one of the city’s more secure neighborhoods.
This summer was also the most violent since the war began, with more coalition combat deaths in June than any other month of the conflict since the U.S.-led invasion began almost nine years ago. With two months still left in the year, 2010 will go down as the most violent year of the war in Afghanistan so far. In the last week alone, 18 American troops have been killed across the country.
Coalition officials compare the increased casualties to the uptick in violence that accompanied the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2008. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, has long warned that the Afghan war would turn more violent before positive results of the surge would be seen.
Any positive developments this fall must also be measured against the fact that violence dips as the warm “fighting season” summer months change to the cooler fall climate, when snow and freezing temperatures are found along the Afghan border with Pakistan. The spring and summer months have been the most violent in Afghanistan since the war began in 2002.