Afghan Forces, Taking Lead, Hold Steady in Violent District

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- First, the British marines tried to pacify it, and lost more soldiers there than anywhere else in Afghanistan. Then the American Marines moved in, and suffered severe casualties, before finally subduing it after a large troop increase. Now the foreigners are mostly gone from Sangin district in the southern Taliban heartland, and its fate is up to the Afghans.

The Taliban insurgents, who never completely left the area, have wasted no time testing the mettle of Afghan government forces. So far, the Afghan security forces have held, but like the Americans and British before them, the price has been high, according to Afghan and Western officials and accounts by locals. The police and the Afghan National Army, or A.N.A., are taking heavy casualties in a battle that American and Afghan officials see as a crucial test of the Afghans' ability to keep the Taliban at bay after the Western withdrawal.

"We hope the A.N.A. survives," said one Western official familiar with the terrain. "But it is a real test."

The Taliban started their offensive in Sangin about three weeks ago, as part of a publicized campaign to discredit Afghan forces and show their ability to disrupt territories across the country. Though the insurgents were reported to have suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Afghan troops, at one point Taliban fighters reached villages less than five miles from the district center, according to residents and local officials. The insurgents overran at least three and perhaps as many as eight Afghan Local Police checkpoints -- reports vary -- that the police were forced to abandon after running out of ammunition.

Along the way, the Taliban planted countless bombs, emptying several villages and intimidating Sangin residents who already had only limited faith in the government.

When the Afghan Army arrived, soldiers pushed the Taliban back, allowing the checkpoints to be re-established. But the fight is hardly done. On Wednesday, a motorcycle bomb detonated when Afghan National Army soldiers were in the main Sangin bazaar, killing a soldier and a civilian and wounding six others. A few days earlier they launched a suicide attack on a Georgian base in Now Zad, near the border with Sangin, killing seven Georgian soldiers.

Not counting Wednesday's attack, the Afghan Army was reported to have lost six soldiers, and the police lost 13 men over the past three weeks of fighting, said Lt. Col. Mohammed Rasool Zazai, the press officer for the Afghan Army's 215th Corps, and Ghulam Ali Khan, the Sangin police chief. An additional 35 members of the security forces were wounded and at least a dozen civilians were reported killed, they said.

"A large number of people have been displaced and some have been killed," said Hajji Ghulam Jan, an Afghan Local Police militia commander who took over when the Taliban killed his brother in the recent fighting. "It is hard for people."

For now, the American military commanders who are mentoring the Afghan Army say that they are optimistic, and that the Afghan Army has basically done well. That view is not necessarily shared by villagers, farmers, rural elders or even the Afghan Local Police who are the front line in the fight with the Taliban.

Mr. Jan, who said he had been forced to leave his security post after running out of ammunition, said the Afghan National Army came too slowly and left too much fighting to his men, irregular local militia forces who have received basic training from American Special Operations forces.

"The A.N.A. is not doing enough," he said. "The Afghan forces are not weak against the Taliban, but they are not fighting with them. I told the district government and the A.N.A.: 'For God's sake, don't let Taliban into my village, Sarwan Kala. We have controlled and secured it with much effort from the Taliban.' "

"But they didn't pay attention, and they allowed the Taliban to take shelter and sow I.E.D.'s, which will be difficult for us to clear," he added, using the military abbreviation for improvised explosive devices.

Hajji Mira Jan, a member of the Sangin district council, agreed that the Afghan forces were not doing enough, and complained that they lacked support from the NATO-led military coalition. "I don't know the reason why the Americans are not taking part in this big battle," he said.

The Americans say they are holding back on purpose -- still present in case disaster strikes but trying to leave the fighting to the Afghans. While the American commanders said they had few illusions that it would be a quick or cost-free fight, given the heavy Western losses in Sangin, they say they have been encouraged by the improvement shown by the Afghan Army.

"It's still a very dangerous place, you always have to be on your guard," said Col. Austin Renforth, the commanding officer for the Regimental Combat Team 7 of the Marines, whose troops are mentoring the Afghan National Army in Helmand Province, which includes Sangin. "Could the A.N.S.F. have done this last year?" he said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces. "I don't think so, not without us. This year, we did very little."

Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of the coalition forces, known as the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, commended the Afghan Army's performance in Sangin, but acknowledged that it was a real fight.

"Whilst a number of casualties were sustained by the police force, the fact of the matter was that with limited ISAF support, the corps commander, General Malouk, was able to resecure the upper Sangin Valley," General Carter said, referring to Gen. Sayed Malouk. "An operation in which significant numbers of enemies were killed or captured."

The Americans say that they provided satellite images to help the Afghans target groups of Taliban and evacuated wounded Afghan soldiers by air, but that they did not fight or provide the air support that they would have in the past.

For both sides, what is at stake in this fight is not just territory, but the psychological balance of power. A number of Sangin residents said repeatedly that they neither liked nor supported the Taliban, but that they also felt there was no government force that could effectively protect them.

A farmer from one of the villages overrun by the Taliban, Hajji Mohammad Naseem, said that he and many fellow villagers had fled their homes at night, leaving behind their crops and possessions, and now could not return because of homemade bombs.

"We were busy harvesting our wheat when the fighting erupted," said Mr. Naseem, who went to stay with relatives in Kandahar. "We left everything on the ground and the fighting burned the crop. We ran with our families, without any shoes. We are in a desperate situation."

The shooting began around May 20, after the opium poppy harvest had been brought in and the part-time fighter-farmers could join the insurgents for the summer fighting season, which by all accounts a number of people did.

How many Taliban took part in the initial assault is hard to say, but local estimates range from 600 to 800. The Americans believe the number that attacked was much smaller, probably fewer than 300.

The Afghan Army's counterattack was slowed by the thousands of bombs laid by the Taliban, said Colonel Zazai, the Maiwand Corps spokesman. "It wasn't easy fighting," he said. "The heavy I.E.D.'s they planted also slowed down the progress of the operation. It doesn't mean we are slow in removing the enemy, but we are looking at people's living conditions. The enemy doesn't care about people's conditions."

Colonel Zazai said the army regretted that so many fields burned in the fighting, but that there had been no way to avoid it.

Hajji Mohammed Dawoud, the Sangin district governor, described a nightmarish situation in which the insurgents planted bombs everywhere. "Even putting them on people's gates, in their homes, and laying them in the open fields," he said. "Anywhere they go they bury mines."

While the number of Taliban fighters ultimately killed is highly unreliable because no one actually counted the bodies, estimates by the police chief and village elders suggest that at least 100 died and possibly as many as 160.

At least 25 of the Taliban fighters were close neighbors, and Taliban families sent village elders to pick up the bodies, said Shamsallah Sahrai, a farmer from the village of Bostanzo, one of the places with intense fighting.

For now, there is an uneasy quiet, local residents said.

"There is no fighting now, yet we cannot say it has stopped yet completely," Mr. Sahrai said. "We think it will start again."

Alissa J. Rubin reported from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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