Thursday, January 22, 2009

Taliban fill vacuum

From the New York Times:

In Afghan South, Taliban Fill NATO's Big Gaps
By DEXTER FILKINS - New York Times

TSAPOWZAI, Afghanistan, Jan 22 - The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country.

And that is a lot of places.

For starters, there is the 550 miles of border with Pakistan, where the Taliban's busiest infiltration routes lie.

''We're not there,'' said Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. ''The borders are wide open.''

Then there is the 100-mile stretch of Helmand River running south from the town of Garmser, where the Taliban and their money crop, poppy, bloom in isolation.

''No one,'' General Nicholson said, pointing to the area on the map.

Then there is Nimroz Province, all of it, which borders Iran. No troops there. And the Ghorak district northwest of Kandahar, which officers refer to as the ''jet stream'' for the Taliban fighters who flow through.

Ditto the districts of Shah Wali Kot, Kharkrez and Nesh...

Five of the six busiest Taliban infiltration routes are in the south, American officers said.

''Drugs out,'' one American officer said, ''guns in.''

The commanders here call the current situation ''stalemate,'' meaning they can hold what they have but cannot do much else. Of the 20,000 British, American and other troops here, only roughly 300 -- a group of British Royal Marines -- can be moved around the region to strike the Taliban. All the other units must stay where they are, lest the area they hold slip from their grasp.

It is perhaps in Kandahar, one of the provincial capitals, where the lack of troops is most evident. About 3,000 Canadian soldiers are assigned to secure the city, home to about 500,000 people. In a recent visit, this reporter traveled the city for five days and did not see a single Canadian soldier on the streets....

On a recent foot patrol through the village of Tsapowzai, about thirty miles west of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers ventured inside and found empty streets...

Finally, the soldiers came across three Afghan men...

''Do you ever see anyone moving through here at night?'' Lieutenant Holloway asked.

''We don't go outside at night,'' said Mr. Niamatullah, who, like many Afghans, uses one name. ''When we do, you guys search us and hold us for hours. And you never find anything.''

Lieutenant Holloway shook his head.

''The last person we stopped in this village, we held for 20 minutes,'' the lieutenant said. ''We never detain anyone.''

''We are afraid of you,'' Mr. Niamatullah said... (link)

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