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Afghanistan War: Success in Kandahar?

Recent operation called success, but no international press witnessed it.

Afghanistan War, Kandahar
A U.S. soldier with the 101st Airborne Division Alpha Battery 1-320th battles Taliban from the rooftop of Lugo patrol base in Chahar Qolbah on the outskirts of the village of Jellawar in the Arghandab Valley on Sept. 10, 2010.(Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

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.