The Tonka Report

Real News In A Changing World

US And Afghan Troops Begin Operation Dragon Strike In Kandahar

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September 26, 2010: Rod Nordland / The New York Times – September 26, 2010

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — American and Afghan troops have begun the active combat phase of a military operation designed to drive the Taliban out of districts around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar city, military officials said Sunday.

Code-named “Operation Dragon Strike,” the push is focusing on clearing the Taliban from three districts to the west and south of the city, said Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. “We expect hard fighting,” he said. The aim, he said, would be “destroying Taliban fighting positions so they will not have anywhere to hide.”

The operation is the first large-scale combat involving multiple objectives in Kandahar Province, where a military offensive was originally expected to begin in June. That offensive was downgraded to more of a joint civil-military effort after the military encountered problems in trying to pacify the much smaller city of Marja and because of resistance from Afghan leaders concerned about the possibility of high civilian casualties.

During the last week of August, at the instigation of Afghan authorities, American troops supported a major push into the Mehlajat area on the southwest edge of Kandahar city, driving them from that area but with few casualties on either side. At the time, military officials said that was the beginning of what would be an increase in active combat operations around Kandahar.

Winning over Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is considered crucial to President Obama’s efforts to shift the balance of power in Afghanistan after the militants staged a comeback in recent years.

General Blotz said the combat phase of Dragon Strike began five or six days ago in Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwye districts, with “shaping operations” preceding that for several weeks. He declined to release further details on the new operation, other than to say it involved a large number of troops with air support, and that for the first time in a major operation, more Afghan forces were deployed than coalition ones.

Bismillah Khan, the police chief in Zhari district, said the combat operation began there on Saturday, but he declined to give further details. “Afghan and coalition forces are repeatedly hitting the insurgents in their backyard, allowing them no time to regroup,” said Col. Rafael Torres, director of ISAF’s Joint Operations Center. “The ultimate goal is to disrupt the enemy’s sanctuaries and staging areas for attacks into Kandahar city.”

American troop strength in Afghanistan peaked earlier this month at just over 100,000 soldiers with the arrival of the last of 30,000 reinforcements ordered by President Obama as a surge of additional forces in Afghanistan. With other NATO forces, that brings the total coalition forces to 150,000, the most at any point in the nine-year-long war. At least 30,000 of those troops are estimated to be in the Kandahar area.

American troops here and in the other districts have reported a steadily increasing tempo of contacts with Taliban insurgents, and particularly with roadside bombs hidden by them, in recent weeks as the number of foreign forces here increased.

Here in Arghandab, the inflow of troops has made it possible to begin trying to pacify an area where thick vegetation, irrigation canals and pomegranate orchards provide good cover for Taliban insurgents, according to Col. Joe Krebs, the 2nd Brigade Combat team’s deputy commander.

No sooner had the 1st Battalion of the 22nd Armored Regiment of the United States Army arrived here than five of its soldiers were killed, in a roadside bomb directed at their convoy. The dead included the first army chaplain to be killed in active duty during the Afghan conflict. The chaplain, Capt. Dale Goetz, 43, had been on a tour of some of the 18 combat outposts the military has established just in the Arghandab district.

While no official casualty totals have been released for the recent operations in the Kandahar districts, a count by, which tracks coalition deaths, showed 14 American fatalities in Kandahar between Aug. 30 and Sept. 23, the latest date for which details are available. At least six of them were in Arghandab and two in Zhari district. That compares to 10 American personnel lost during that same period in Helmand Province, where the United States Marines have been struggling to suppress the Taliban in and around Marja, scene of the year’s first major offensive, Operation Mustarak, which began Feb. 14.

Kandahar’s Operation Hamkari, the combined civilian-military effort of which the more recent Dragon Strike is a part, adopted a strategy of concentrating on development projects in key districts around Kandahar City, as well as in the city itself, while at the same time increasing the military presence.

“I look at each one of my 13 combat platoons as a development team,” said Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, commander of the 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, stationed at the district headquarters here. “I’m not going to tell you the population is fully in support, but they are much more in support of the government and the coalition than they are of the Taliban,” he said.

Along with the military buildup has come a similar effort to increase the presence of United States State Department employees, along with aid contractors paid by the Americans, staffing district stabilization teams in those key districts. The civilian buildup has not been as dramatic as the military one, however, and although province-wide some 300 American civilian staff have arrived, at the district levels there are only a few.

Arghandab, where the civilian effort is deemed to have been the most successful, the district team still comprises only two Americans, as well as contractors and local employees. “It’s hard to get people to come here,” says Kevin Melton, who is just finishing up a year-long tour in Arghandab.

When Mr. Melton arrived, there was essentially no functioning district government, and its headquarters was a military barracks. Now, the local government has an active shura, with villagers coming to the center regularly, attracted by generous aid programs. “Five dead and that’s the news that gets out,” he said. “Yeah, we know what’s going wrong, but look what’s going right. If we had done this eight years ago, would we have been here now?” By comparison, other districts like Zhari and Panjwye are just getting started, he said.

Three ISAF service members were killed in two roadside bombings in southern Afghanistan, two on Sunday and one on Saturday, the military said. There was no indication whether the deaths took place in the Kandahar districts, since details are not released until after next of kin have been notified. So far this year, 354 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan, more than the 317 who died in all of 2009.

The Tonka Report Editor’s Note: Just take a good, long look at the image above, because that’s precisely what Americans are dying for in Afghanistan… Protecting the international opium and heroin trade! – SJH

Afghan Official Says More Than 200 Civilians Killed In Two US Airstrikes

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