|..:: Hot News:|
Monday, 11.15.2010, 06:54am (GMT)
In the battle for
Peter Beaumont in Talukan
Courtesy: The Observer
For the soldiers, it is a short walk from the centre of Talukan, a village of some 1,500 people in southern
But there is no such thing as a short walk in the battle for
The reasons quickly became evident: three command wires for explosive devices were uncovered in the tall stands of cannabis plants in the first few minutes. Half an hour later a cluster of mines was discovered lying in the open, close to a small madrasa (religious school) and mosque named after Mullah Bujan, a dead Taliban commander. Inside the madrasa and the nearby houses was what they had come looking for: a Taliban command centre including a bomb-making cell, ammonium nitrate for making explosives, and a cache of equipment for treating injured insurgents.
Thursday was a good day for the soldiers of Delta Company on the southernmost front of the struggle for
But in the battle for
The first war is the one you hear at night. After the sun sets, the air becomes noisy with
The night is also lit up by brilliant flares that fall as slow as floating snowflakes, a visible sign of the commando raids into the villages beyond. It is a conflict heard, but not often witnessed.
The second war is more accessible but no less deadly – a daytime battle between the Taliban's bomb makers and the soldiers who come in to secure the villages, including those of the 101st Airborne who have been at the forefront of the struggle for
It is a conflict that is being fought less in
Captain John Hintz, an imposing Iowan who sold up his share in a pair of tattoo parlours to rejoin the army after 9/11, points to the ruins of a house that was rigged up with IEDs – with some in the surrounding trees. "The Taliban had the family held hostage. They would fire at us to try to get us to attack the house and bring it down on us."
We pass a hole in the main road that transects the Horn of Panjwai. The soldiers had walked over the mine hidden here for days, until one day they arrived to find that villagers had circled its location with stones. "I was looking behind me when I nearly put my foot in it," says Sergeant David Gasper, 39, who, like Hintz, joined after 9/11. "We had walked over that spot every day. But someone had placed a circle of red marked stones around it, with another in the middle painted with a sunburst.
"Afterwards we tried and tried to figure out what exactly we had done right to encourage the villagers to do this."
And that is at the very heart of
The Taliban, which once moved freely in these villages, has been pushed back. Its rear support areas are now occupied by American and Afghan troops, and its ability to move has been significantly limited. It has lost large amounts of materiel and reports suggest that some of them – including the commander in the hamlet outside Talukan – have retreated over the border into
What is equally apparent is that a significant number remain, still attempting to influence their home communities.
It is precisely this that makes difficult what comes next in counter-insurgency doctrine – not the "seizing" or "holding", but the "building" – and that requires unravelling the complex and competing loyalties in villages such as Talukan.
And there are those, including
Places such as Talukan – not the cities – hold the key to the question of whether the war can be won at all on terms acceptable to the government of Hamid Karzai and his coalition allies.
The answer depends on one factor: not whether the visible trappings of "governance" and government, including local police and political leaders loyal to Karzai, can be brought in quickly behind the military assaults, but if places such as Talukan actually want government at all – modern Afghanistan's oldest and most vexed question that has persisted since the fall of the country's monarchy in 1973.
It depends too on whether the ideas of governance that the west has so long tried to import are an appropriate fit to the kind of society that exists here.
For while the past year has seen profound changes in the scope and style of what foreign forces, diplomats and development organisations are attempting, showing a greater understanding of the dynamics of Afghan society, some are asking whether too much damage has already been done in previous failed efforts for there to be much faith among Afghans in the new approach.
As many of the soldiers are also painfully aware, this third battle is one where the cards are not in their favour. Like the Taliban and the local population, they know that a deadline, set by the politicians for the beginning of a reduction of forces next year, hangs over them.
"We have six to seven months to make a difference at most," said one coalition officer involved in the counter-insurgency effort, who asked not to be identified. "If you think about a football game, we are in the last minute of play. The Taliban know that and so do the local people. In many areas where we are now very active doing clearing operations – and with great effect – we have been our own worst enemy.
"The people have seen us come and go several times so they have to be convinced that both we and Afghan government forces are committed to staying. Otherwise they are hedging their bets in a place where people have learned to be weak to survive."
Even the optimists, such as General Nick Carter, the British officer in charge of Afghanistan's south until the beginning of this month, are cautious, warning that it will take until "June or July next year" to measure whether the battle, as a whole, has been a success.
"The early signs are that
We first drop into Talukan by helicopter into darkness made even more impenetrable by the dense blinding fog of dust. The landing zone is a cannabis field scattered with broken, fragrant stalks. The village is in the dead centre of the Horn of Panjwai, an area whose importance to the battle – for both the Taliban and the
Squeezed between the Arghandab river and the dried-up watercourse of the Dowrey, the Horn is a flat crescent of farmland. Villagers train grapes on corrugated ranks of little walls set into sunken fields, bordered by tall feathery grass. Elsewhere the crop is cannabis or corn. It is a landscape punctuated by tall mud-walled grape-houses, imposing as forts, and by sprawling villages.
Here, straddling both banks of the Arghandab, are the rear support areas for the Taliban's operations further north, towards
Ingredients for the IEDs to be placed on Highway 1 or to target coalition forces were warehoused here. To the south run the smuggling routes across the desert from the
Once an asset to them, however, that desert may now have become the Achilles heel of the Taliban in this province, as its fighters have been pushed south out of Zari across the Horn and increasingly into the desert itself, where they are easier for US forces to track and kill.
One day a small crowd of villagers appears at the
Hintz orders the blindfold and wrist restraints removed and apologises to the man. Politely, he explains he is not under arrest but he would like to ask him some questions. The butcher looks confident. He says his brother was ill and he took him to
Nabi says his enemies hid it to harm him as part of a tribal feud. The aerial is not enough for the soldiers to arrest him. A day later, Hintz stops for tea in a village shop. The villagers do not mention the butcher by name at first but complain about "arrests" and "unfounded allegations". When they do speak of Nabi directly, they say he is a "good man". Not Taliban. Somebody to be trusted. Walking back after the encounter Hintz ponders the problem: the possibility that the villagers, who he believes do not want the Taliban around, could still feel loyalty to someone with Taliban connections.
"Maybe he is Taliban," says Hintz, "or linked closely to them, but the villagers still regard him as a good person."
It is this, precisely, that defines the nature of
The nature of the problem is reinforced by a second figure in the village. He is pointed out to me one day, a wealthy and crisply dressed individual, a youth in tow carrying his shopping. Clearly a man of influence: I see the butcher and others bow and kiss his hand.
He avoids the soldiers at every turn. Later I learn he is afraid of arrest because the Taliban came to his compound frequently. When finally the soldiers do manage to speak to him in private, his position becomes clear.
In the past decade, he explains, he has seen other foreign soldiers pass through and depart and the Taliban remain. Now, despite the influx of American and Afghan soldiers, he intimates strongly that he is waiting to see who is still around when the fighting ends before deciding what side he will take.
Hayam Mohammed, an elder from a village a kilometre beyond the part of Talukan secured by the
But he, too, describes the difficulties confronting US forces here. "You walk here during the day," he says with animation, "but at night they come… bringing night letters" – threats against those who collaborate with the foreign soldiers.
Like the other elders, he is worried about what will happen when the Americans hand over to the Afghan National Army. The army at least, he says, is preferable to the police, who he claims are "thieves". He complains about the nightly commando raids and the damage that they do.
Then he asks: "When the government comes, what should we ask of them?" appealing to Hintz to be an interlocutor for the village's interest.
For so long beyond the reach of effective government – if indeed it has ever been experienced in places like this – the villagers of Talukan have almost no notion of the relationship between government and governed; of expectations and responsibilities. If it is to be built it must be built from scratch.