The papers say the American forces of Operation Khanjar ('Dagger') are meeting only pockets of resistance in southern Helmand while the Brits are engaging in more fighting in their parallel operation in Lashkar Gah called Panchai Palang ('Panther's Claw'). Not only fighting, but dying too: in the past 10 days some 15 British soldiers have been killed. Considering the history of the US Marines in Helmand province (more on this below), we should not be surprized that occupation soldiers are having such a tough time.
It seems that after nine days of the American-led operation (and about three weeks for the British part of it), there are still several districts of Helmand yet to be pacified - namely Washer, Dishu, Baghran, and to a lesser extent Garmsir and Nawa districts, according to Afghan Defence Ministry spokesperson General Zaher Azimi. Also, the latest British soldiers to die were killed in Sangin district and Nad Ali district and UK troops have battled outside the main town of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the province and a key area of operations for the British. Upstream of the capital is another important area, Khajaki district, where a hydro-electric dam built with American aid funds in the 1950's has become a constant beacon for attacks by insurgents. (For an excellent map of Helmand, see here.)
And yet the American Marines' operation began in Khanshin, Nawa and Garmsir - the latter two being mentioned above as containing ongoing resistance. So really, only Khanshin district can be classed as pacified, but what does that mean, exactly? Are the Marines nerely occupying the district center? That is what General Azimi of the defence ministry implied in a TV interview in Kabul:
[T]he centre of Khanshin District has been cleared of insurgents and efforts are under way to clear the rural areas of the district. Even capturing the centre of a district, covering an area of two square kilometres, can help us to claim we have captured an entire district and use it as a huge political publicity. [Tolo TV, July 5]Thus the opening move of Obama's supposed new strategy might amount to dribbles of Marines poured into a few larger towns, with little presence in the rural areas. The US military already seems to be making excuses for the inevitable return of Taliban presence. A Marine officer laments the lack of Afghan soldiers along for the ride whose job it is to "hold and build," following on the Marines' task of "clearing."
In May of 2008, a US Marine force of 2,400 invaded Garmsir, displacing perhaps 30,000 people, while managing after an entire month to hold only five square kilometers of that district. What's more, reports indicated that these Marines were facing a force of insurgents numbered in the scores, not hundreds or thousands.
It would not take a Richard Feynman to calculate that where 2,400 hundred troops failed to secure even a dozen square kilometers, a force of 4,000 will work no miracles. On verra, as the French say.
Meanwhile, residents in provinces surrounding Kabul are non-plussed with the US presence in their midst. Anand Gopal reports from Wardak:
... "Roger, heading into the bazaar. There's people all around," comes the reply from another vehicle in the convoy.And in Logar province near Kabul, locals see little reason to celebrate the presence of foreigners:
"These people out here don't like us, so keep your eyes open," the first soldier says.
Suddenly, a dull thud resounds in the vehicle. Then another. "They are throwing rocks at us!" shouts one soldier over the radio...
Soldiers here recount instances when they have handed out candy to children, only to have it hurled back at them. When they recently killed a leading Taliban commander in the area named Mohebullah, a nearby town closed its bazaar for hours in remembrance of the fallen insurgent.
When they ask locals for information about insurgents operating in the area, they often get evasive answers or lies.
"I don't know why, but people there just don't seem to like us," says Pfc. Christopher Sues. "Maybe they are happy with the way they live."
According to locals, US intelligence officials, and analysts, the troops are facing local resistance for a variety of reasons.
"In Wardak, most of the insurgents are locals," says an American intelligence officer associated with the forces here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Every second or third house has a son or a brother in the Taliban," says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Sayadabad district of Wardak...
In one recent shura held in Sayadabad district, elders asked the Americans to leave, saying that they were happy with Taliban rule, which limits crime, and complaining that the troops "cause the price of everything to increase," ... (link)
Here in Logar, on Kabul’s southern border, there is little support for the occupation. Even at public gatherings like this recent one to commemorate Teacher’s Day in the provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, songs sympathetic to the Taliban are well received.
Elsewhere, there is increasing frustration with the foreign troops. Few residents in Baraki Barak district believe extra US troops will bring them long-term stability and many worry instead that the situation is about to deteriorate further...
“Now the Americans sometimes block the roads with their vehicles for four or five hours and no one is allowed to pass them. Even if someone is sick, they have to wait.” ...
“We are afraid of both the Americans and the Taliban. The Taliban say we shouldn’t work with the Americans or the Afghan government,”[said Farid, a 30-year-old labourer].
“God willing, we believe that if the Americans leave this country the fighting will stop because if there are no Americans then there will be no one for [the insurgents] to fight...
Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, has warned that troop casualties will probably increase. He has also acknowledged that support among Afghans is waning. (link)