Shutting the door on the Taliban
NANGALAM, Afghanistan – This stretch of the Hindu Kush mountain range is known as Osama bin Laden’s backyard, a steep-sided territory where the al-Qaida leader is believed to have found shelter before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.Today, NATO-led forces are determined to yank the welcome mat from under Islamic insurgents who swear allegiance to Bin Laden’s jihadist ideals and have crisscrossed Afghanistan’s eastern border region with key supply routes.As U.S. Marines and soldiers work to close the lines supplying weapons and fighters from Pakistan, one mission is to drive a wedge between the Taliban militants and villagers who might not share the fighters’ ideological beliefs but have allowed them to pass through their communities, either out of fear or a sense of Afghan hospitality.The United States is trying to win favor with the villagers through construction projects: roads, a health clinic, a water-purification facility and a footbridge over a fast-moving river.Isolated and suspicious of outsiders, the mountain villagers are not easily won over, U.S. officials said. One prominent tribe, for instance, exists on an economy of timber smuggling, so its members are even less open to the overtures.”You have to prove you can kick the enemy’s ass,” said Capt. James McKnight, a company commander with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y. “Once you do that, and show them that you’re going to stay, they want to make peace.”As he toured forward operating bases, Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis praised the 10th Mountain approach, particularly the emphasis on not offending villagers with random firing of weapons and aggressive driving along the narrow, curving roads.”You don’t want to make any enemies,” Mattis said, “but if you find one, treat them roughly.”The mission has been complicated by recent incidents that have left Afghan civilians dead at the hands of NATO troops.In a shooting in March that sparked outrage, Marines fired on scores of civilian vehicles on a highway outside nearby Jalalabad after they came under attack. At least 12 Afghan civilians were killed and dozens were injured.The Marines, part of a special operations group, were ordered back to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the military might file criminal charges. In the village where the deaths occurred, adults and children stare stonily at U.S. vehicles passing by, some turning their backs in a show of continuing anger.The U.S. military also has suffered casualties in the area. The battalion assigned to the region that includes Nangalam and other outposts in Kunar province has lost 20 members in recent months, and 130 have been wounded. The outposts also have been hit by mortar shells, including several attacks from a firing position accessible only by a road from Pakistan.Although the much-anticipated spring offensive by insurgents did not take place, small-scale attacks in outlying provinces have become an almost daily occurrence. The main targets in the lightning insurgent raids are police stations and government offices.From the perspective of U.S. and Afghan officials, the insurgency here is a chronic problem but not yet acute. Still, concern is growing that hit-and-run tactics against the security services will force residents from rural provinces to cooperate with insurgents as a matter of survival.”Every time police die, a little bit more of the Karzai government’s credibility dies too,” said a top U.S. military adviser to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.The government’s hold on its outlying provinces is already tenuous. A teahouse in Jalalabad, now converted into a U.S. communications center, is the location of the last confirmed sighting of Bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks, and villagers in the region are thought to regard him with respect and fear.The U.S. would like Karzai to develop a kind of SWAT brigade, possibly with helicopters, to react quickly when a rebel attack is reported.”The insurgents have to learn that the price of an attack is death,” the adviser said.Until such a force is recruited and trained, the mission might fall to “hunter-killer” teams from the U.S. military or the NATO forces, whose commander is a U.S. Army general.The killing of Taliban operational commander Mullah Dadullah nearly two weeks ago was considered “good news for the champions of a free and stable Afghanistan,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Maria Carl, spokeswoman for the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO offshoot.But Afghan Gen. Zahir Azimi, in a Kabul news conference, said that “the killing of Dadullah is not the end of the story, but it is a chance to improve the situation.”As part of a stepped-up effort to thwart smugglers, commanders of the Afghan Border Patrol recently were fired because of allegations of corruption. Replacements were named, and inspections of 18-wheel trucks coming from Pakistan have increased.At some military outposts, food, ammunition, vehicle parts and other necessities mostly are brought in by U.S. helicopters and donkeys led by villagers. The air is thin, snow-capped mountains are visible to the south and sturdy-looking Afghan soldiers keep watch on insurgent supply routes.Army Lt. Col. Christopher Cavoli, whose battalion runs the border outposts, is bullish on the operation. One “informal metric” of success, he said, is the reaction of the children: Rather than run away or throw rocks, they now run toward U.S. vehicles.”If anybody thinks that it’s an unwinnable war, they should come here,” Cavoli said. “Six more months and I can kick this through the goal post.”
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