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U.S. troops, Afghan police sweep through Taliban stronghold

U.S. soldiers and Afghan police early Saturday swarmed a dense Taliban stronghold of mud-brick homes on the western shoulder of Kandahar, conducting searches and promising aid in a preview of a planned summer campaign to control the insurgent movement’s spiritual home.

Operation Kokaran was named for the neighborhood where the Taliban have assassinated government officials and built infiltration routes. The U.S. goal is to clear out insurgents, build up local governance and bring in reconstruction projects.

Only a few shots were fired during the most comprehensive military-civilian operation in Kandahar since President Obama in December ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It is the first time civilian aid and reconstruction teams have taken part in conceiving and planning a military clearing operation here, U.S. officials said.

Hours later, insurgents launched a rocket, mortar and ground attack on the main base used by foreign troops, at Kandahar’s air field a few miles east of Kokaran. Explosions wounded several troops and civilian workers, said Capt. Scott Costen, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization spokesman at the base. Costen said he could not provide details on the attack, the number of wounded or any insurgent casualties.

But the attack seemed similar to an insurgent assault Wednesday on the sprawling U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul.

In Kandahar, more than 200 U.S. military police and infantry troops backed 200 to 250 Afghan police officers in door-to-door searches that began before dawn in the tight warren of residential compounds in the city’s District 8, which is home to about 75,000 people and includes Kokaran. U.S. commanders say the Taliban exercises more autonomy in the district than anywhere else in the city.

Previous sweeps failed to dislodge insurgents because there weren’t enough troops and little aid to elicit local support. This time, U.S. and Afghan commanders promised enough military muscle and development aid to make a difference.

“The key to making it stick is the governance portion, showing the locals that what they saw today is here to stay,” said Army Capt. Michael Thurman, commander of the 293rd Military Police Company, who led the ground operation along with an Afghan police chief. “It’s a long process, and today was only the start.”

Insurgents, alerted by chugging armored vehicles and the thump of helicopters, disappeared or blended into the population. The only shots fired were at four men fleeing across a field. In an area infested with roadside bombs, there were no explosions. The only casualty was a U.S. soldier whose hand was crushed by an armored vehicle’s heavy door.

No American soldiers entered homes. Afghan female police officers, their faces covered by scarves, searched compounds. Male police questioned residents, confiscating guns from several men who failed to produce permits.

A development team invited elders to a shura, or meeting, on Monday to discuss aid projects and security. They will be asked about community needs “so that we don’t dictate to them what they get,” a Canadian civil affairs officer said. The lieutenant identified himself only by his first name, Alex, for security reasons.

Residents of Kokaran and much of the rest of the district have few modern facilities. Raw sewage and garbage flow through open channels carved into rutted dirt pathways. Though it is part of Kandahar city, the area is largely rural, dotted with pomegranate and apricot groves, and surrounded by small plots of wheat, corn and tomatoes.

The Taliban operates a shadow government and court system. There is little police or official government presence, other than patrols and checkpoints, which were to be bolstered beginning with Saturday’s operation.

With a buildup of troops and civilian aid and reconstruction specialists, the United States and its allies are attempting to wrest control of Kandahar from the Taliban this year, before American forces begin a gradual withdrawal in summer 2011.

A U.S. government official called Saturday’s operation “an early snapshot” of the broader effort here, code-named Operation Hamkari, or Cooperation. Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, a largely Pashtun movement that governed Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The U.S. strategy is based on the “clear, hold and build” model first used by American forces in Iraq and most recently in the Afghan city of Marja, in Helmand province, west of Kandahar.

U.S. troops in February largely cleared Marja of insurgents after heavy fighting. But they have struggled to keep the Taliban from reestablishing control, and a functioning local government has not emerged.

After Marja, top U.S. commanders outlined a similar citywide military operation this summer for Kandahar, a much bigger area. But they have since backtracked, and now describe a series of military-civil operations to clear Kandahar and environs in stages.

One resident of District 8, Haji Feda, said Saturday that people were pleased that the Americans didn’t disturb them. “We told them if we see anyone doing something wrong, we have elders and provincial members. We will call them and tell them.”

Lt. Col. David Chase, who commands the U.S. battalion that mounted the operation, said several residents asked whether it was “the start of the big Kandahar offense.”

“I told them there is no big offensive,” Chase said. “It’s getting governance to the people; that’s the only offensive.”

Operation Kokaran got off to a muddled start when the Kandahar provincial security chief, Col. Fazal Ahmad Shirzad, showed up half an hour late and differed with Thurman on how to deploy their forces.

“We have different ways of doing things, and it can get frustrating,” Thurman said diplomatically.

His counterpart laughed and called it a misunderstanding. Shirzad, a squat man with a clipped black mustache, gave orders on the fly, forcing Thurman to adapt quickly. Shirzad twice slapped a young man found with a gun permit signed by a Taliban commander, raising a scarlet welt on the suspect’s cheek.

The chief spoke more of security than governance, saying the operation was intended “to strike at the Taliban, to show them the police and the coalition are strong.” He said several police checkpoints installed Saturday, along with beefed-up patrols, would help stem Taliban infiltration.

Chase said security has to be established before governance can expand, and before residents are willing to confront insurgents and their expansive shadow governments.

The district sits below a gap between two mountain ranges at the southern end of the Arghandab River Valley. Insurgents have long pumped fighters, weapons and bomb-making materials from Helmand through the valley and into Kandahar.

One district official appointed by the Afghan government has been assassinated by the Taliban. Two have been kidnapped, and two more intimidated into leaving office. Only four of the district’s 15 government-appointed officials are effective, U.S. officials said.

No one expects residents to turn in their Taliban brothers, cousins and friends, one American government official said. But they will be asked to persuade insurgents to lay down weapons or leave the neighborhood to help them secure Western aid.

“We’re basically saying, if you help us maintain security, you’ll get the reconstruction you want,” Thurman said. “Easier said than done.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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