Initial security impressions: Panjwai


A hilltop observation post at Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar in Panjwai district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.

Bill Ardolino is currently embedded with US soldiers from the 4-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Panjwai, Afghanistan.

I wasn’t certain what to expect on this visit to Panjwai district in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Media reports have indicated a quickening American withdrawal from the overall province, often under fire, as bases are shuttered or transferred to Afghan security forces. Panjwai, along with neighboring Zhari district, is considered the cradle of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan; and two of its villages were the scene of the “Kandahar massacre,” for which US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales stands accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians. These factors would seem to make it an unlikely place for a US and Afghan government success story.

But recent news of a grassroots uprising against the Taliban has percolated into the international media, and even Taliban spokesmen have acknowledged a severe setback in the district. These surprising developments present more questions: How widespread is the uprising and how has it impacted security? Is it durable? And will Afghan security forces be able to sustain themselves as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) incrementally removes its support?

Accurate answers to these questions will take more research and time. But one of the issues has crystallized after speaking to perhaps two dozen Afghans and Americans, including senior military officers, government officials, and everyday farmers from villages surrounding the district center: The uprising is real. And it is spreading east and west like an inkblot from its arguable starting point in the village of Peshinagan in central-west Panjwai.

Villagers in the district have become fed up with stumbling across planted IEDs, drastic Taliban abuse — two contractors were hung by the Taliban near the western village of Gerandi a couple of weeks ago, and civil servants attempting to clear waterways essential for irrigation have been beaten — and the routine indignities of being forced to quarter and feed insurgent foot soldiers. While not every civilian here is comfortable labeling the enemy “Taliban,” anger at insurgents stemming “from Pakistan” (often accompanied by unsolicited mentions of their “ISI,” the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, benefactors) is a nearly universal sentiment. Locals believe these foreign forces are attempting to destabilize and ultimately control Afghanistan.

Local opinion on the Kandahar massacre that took place little more than a year ago is complicated but, thus far, surprisingly pragmatic and conciliatory relative to the anger one might expect. Opinions of the government and its security apparatus are also multilayered, with various shades of approval of the government, the local police, the uniform police, and the army, respectively. Official governance lacks basic resources but it is apparently well- and locally-led; residents seem to appreciate this fact, while also holding the capability of government security forces in greater esteem than that of their civilian counterparts. The police force (both local police and uniform police) has been animated under the leadership of an aggressive new district police chief, Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammed, a former mujahedeen commander who has been “getting after it” since his January arrival and “really hates the Taliban,” according to American advisers.

Seventeen soldiers of the 4-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team (responsible for Panjwai as well as parts of other districts) have been wounded and four have been killed since the unit’s arrival in late November. Two of the latter were lost in a non-combat related accident, and all of the casualties except for three have come from the ubiquitous pressure-plate IEDs (a.k.a. mines) that insurgents litter across the fields, roads, and footpaths of the district. Most of these booby traps target foot mobile patrols and attempt to shape their movement. Although a few Strykers have been destroyed by insurgents, the latest class of armored US vehicles weathers many of the smaller bombs well; insurgents also need to utilize many of the same well-trafficked main roadways used by Americans, and are thus hesitant or less able to sow them with explosives.

Afghan casualties in the area are higher than the toll for the Americans, indicating an ongoing, vicious fight between Afghan forces — soldiers, uniform police, and local police — and the insurgents. But even that metric has slowed in the past couple of months. The Panjwai district center serves as one of the medical hubs for wounded Afghan personnel, and US soldiers here have medevaced 30 patients since November; roughly three quarters of cases have been wounded Afghan soldiers or cops. The Americans haven’t rushed an Afghan casualty from their LZ in “a couple of weeks,” however, and only two in the past month, according to one soldier.

On first impression, the present security situation seems to have improved significantly in the past two months and the local uprising against the insurgents is robust and sincere. But crucial caveats to this progress remain: Can the Afghan security forces maintain their fight as the US overwatch diminishes? Will the national and provincial Afghan government step in with at least minimal financial support to capitalize on the grassroots security movement? Will the international aid that is still essential to a functioning government at the district level endure past the official withdrawal of US combat power? And is the relative calm simply a seasonal pause prior to the Taliban’s spring and summer fighting season, which essentially kicks off now? US outposts took fire in both the Zangabad and Sperwan areas of Panjwai in the past few days, so time will soon tell.

Greater detail on all of these issues will follow in further reports from Panjwai at The Long War Journal.

Bill Ardolino’s forthcoming book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, will be published by Naval Institute Press on May 15. All of the author’s proceeds from the first edition will go to the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.

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  • mike merlo says:

    Thanks Bill. Excellent reporting!

  • David says:

    Stay safe Bill. The MSM does not even mention the uprising. If it were not for guys like you, we would all be in the dark about what is really going on in AfPak.

  • Keith says:

    Very impressive. Great to hear some real reporting going on. (In other words, a clear, tactical look at a provence without the soap operatic crying widows and diseased babies taking center stage.)
    Very much looking forward to your future dispatches!

  • Haole Wahine says:

    INKBLOT where have we heard that? Thanks for the reports.

  • Lakshman says:

    Afghan will be a success story if the U.S. cripples the Pak Army. The U.S. should use their sources in the region to assasinate Pak Military commanders (ex as well as serving) who are actively involved in foreign missions. If the US succeeds thus sending a message to Pak army, after the initial furore, they will show more interest to protect themselves than indulging in Afghan conflict.

  • Lucky says:

    If the U.S. is able to directly threaten the Pak Army officers involved in “foreign missions” of liquidation through their sources, Afghan story will be a success.

  • Paul D says:

    More proof that we are fighting Pakistan in Afghanistan

  • Joe says:

    I agree, time will tell.
    The feeling here, for me, is one of optimism and hope. Hope that the Afghans will take a solid stand, with or without ISAF Soldiers standing by their side, against those who would manipulate and threaten them and their Families.
    Having watched the Awakening from a plans shop in Ramadi to the uprisings here in central Panjwa’i, the same feelings & thoughts of hopeful anticipation come to mind. I know that it’s possible to defeat the insurgents. The defeat, however, must come at the hands of local police, whether AUP or ALP. What we provided then and what we need to provide now is a strong and supporting presence.
    I’m hopeful that the stand taken in Peshingan and Sperwan will persist and spread. As the weather warms and summer returns the outcomes of this story will be told.

  • mike merlo says:

    from the ‘looks’ of ‘it’ Pakistan seems to be doing just fine on their own in respect to “crippling” their own military let alone the ‘depths’ the Pakistan Government pursues in repeatedly demonstrating their impotence & irrelevance

  • Moose says:

    @Bill Ardolino
    How do you think this uprising compares to the so-called Andar Awakening in Ghazni in October? That one was lambasted in the blogosphere.
    @mike merlo
    I just don’t believe that the Pakistani military is defeating itself. As long as the fighting is largely contained to the tribal areas and against our forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan is a happy camper. The TTP occasionally conducts attacks in Pakistan-proper, but those are few and far between.
    Interesting idea that I hadn’t considered before – and one that might work. At some point we’re going to have to take serious action against the Pak military. The first step is to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism the next time a terrorist act emanates from their country.
    @Paul D
    You’re spot on that Pakistan is the main enemy. We should start supporting the Baluch insurgency if that’s the game they want to play.

  • mike merlo says:

    The Pakistani Military has been a broken down defeated Institution since The Partition Of 1947. About the only event of consequence that resulted in any kind of a victory for Pakistan was a piece of Kashmir other than ‘that’ everything Military in nature the Paki’s have set their ‘hands’ on has resulted in failure.

  • Moose says:

    @Mike Merlo
    The Pakistani military is the strongest in the Islamic world. Even so, they’re still going to lose against India.

  • mike merlo says:

    Huh? The Pakistani Military is a joke. Go back to your PlaySkool

  • Moose says:

    @Mike Merlo
    You need to do more research before commenting buddy! Try googling the Pakistani air force during the Arab-Israeli wars. That’s right, they were there, and did more damage in dog fights with the Israelis than the Arab air forces combined. If your idea of ‘effective’ is taking on a billion plus people in India than you’re setting the bar a little high. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they lost Bangladesh – it’s almost 2,000km away from Pakistan-proper. Either way, the fact that Pakistan has the ‘Islamic bomb’ makes them the biggest military threat in the Islamic world bar none… and we’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later.
    The Moose is loose!!!!!!!

  • mike merlo says:

    as usual Bullwinkle you make little to no sense. Making excuses for a failed entity(Pakistani Military) in no way changes what they are. A failure! Either way in spite of the fact that Pakistan has a Nuclear Weapon doesn’t automatically make their Military that much more than the ‘has been’s’ they already are.
    The US doesn’t have to ‘deal’ with Pakistan. They’re an ocean and a continent removed. It’s Asia’s problem not the US’s.

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    Gentlemen – good (and welcome) discussion, but a reminder to please tiptoe around the comment policy on personal insults and profanity, etc. I have to moderate/edit anything that violates this. Thanks.

  • Mr T says:

    The war in Afghanistan would not be at the state it is now after years of fighting and many, many people dead and wounded, if not for the involvement of Pakistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban harbor there. The Pakastani powers that be know where Zawahiri is. They knew where Osama was.
    They are enemies of the US. The only reason they were not openly sucked into this war is that Musharaff understood the implications of siding with Mullah Omar against the US.
    They have a similar Islamic goal as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They have played everyone for a fool. Funny thing is, they themselves are fools. They just haven’t recognized it yet. When the Taliban overran Swat, they probably had an inkling but refused to accept it. And they have the nuclear bomb to make them feel all brave and scary.


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