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.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.