Earlier today, the US military launched a brigade-plus-sized operation in the district of Zhari, the Taliban stronghold west of Kandahar known as “the heart of darkness.” From McClatchy:
U.S. forces launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan early Wednesday in the district that gave birth to the Taliban movement, in what could be one of the most important offensives of the war.
Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops encircled and swooped into a belt of lush farm land in Zhari district, a sanctuary and staging post for the Taliban just west of Kandahar city known to foreign soldiers as “the heart of darkness.” Key insurgent-held villages such as Mukuan, Pashmul and Singesar are the target, areas essentially untouched by coalition forces since they entered Afghanistan in 2001.
The operation began at 4 a.m. local time Wednesday, approximately 7:30 p.m. EDT.
The firepower for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Zhari is provided by three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, bolstered by rangers and special forces teams, aiming to surprise the Taliban with a multi-day massive attack, including airborne assault. The nascent Afghan army, facing a major test of its battle-readiness, will be tasked to conduct house-to-house clearances
The Taliban are believed to have fortified positions and tunnels in the villages, protected by minefields and bobby-trapped buildings. The terrain, of trees, grape fields with raised earthen mounds, irrigation canals and tall elephant grass is ideal for cover for the Taliban guerrillas. Coalition and Afghan forces will also have to win the backing of locals by ensuring that the lives of any civilians present in those villages are protected.
Interestingly enough, there is no number given for the Afghan troops aiding the the Zhari operation. ISAF is usually quick to provide numbers for Afghan forces participating in operations, as this is considered a metric for success. ISAF claims that more than 10,000 Afghan soldiers and an estimated 5,000 police are in Kandahar, yet the reporting indicates that this is primarily a US operation.
Antonio Giustozzi, in Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, has an excellent summary of the Zhari region and how the Taliban entrenched there in 2006 [see pages 124-126]. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Taliban fighters were thought to have massed in the region. During a Canadian-led operation in Pashmul in 2006, an estimated 1,100 Taliban fighters were killed, and the Taliban suffered a major tactical defeat.
Yet despite their heavy losses, the Taliban remained in control of the region, as ISAF did not have troops to occupy the terrain. An understrength Canadian battlegroup that essentially had a battalion of Canadian soldiers available was unable to hold the ground, and the Afghan police who were put in charge of small outposts were chased off by the Taliban.
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