The Afghan War: Why the Kandahar Campaign Matters

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Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Soldiers with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division on Oct. 14, 2010, patrol an area in Zhari district, west of Kandahar, Afghanistan, where their platoon was recently attacked

U.S. combat operations are now at full tilt across the mud-baked flats of Kandahar province in Afghanistan. After delays over fears of civilian casualties and setbacks in other parts of the southern theater, American-led forces are targeting militant cells that have for years gone unchallenged. The overriding goal is to consolidate security around Kandahar city, the country's second largest and the nerve center of insurgent activity. Military planners are banking that an aggressive tempo in surrounding districts — Arghandab, Zhari, Panjwai — will break their grip. Lieut. Colonel Peter Benchoff, a battalion commander of the 101st Airborne Division deployed in Zhari district, says the goal is nothing less than to "crush [the Taliban's] will."

The fight is fiercest in Zhari. Less than four miles (6.5 km) from Forward Operating Base Howz-e-Madad, where the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, is based along with several hundred Afghan army troops, sits the village of Sanghisar. Back in 1994, Mullah Omar, the Taliban's elusive chief, launched the movement in its one-room mosque, partly in response to roadblocks that local warlords were using to extort the area's farmers. Until very recently, the Taliban has had the edge in terms of control: it ran checkpoints and attacked supply convoys each day on the nearby Highway 1, which connects Kandahar and Helmand, using a range of weapons that included roadside bombs, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The district governor at the time refused to set foot in the area, and Afghan and U.S. military patrols could barely venture beyond the walls of their outposts.

Late last month, the push began to move insurgents back from the critical roadway, and U.S. Army scouts, who are relied upon as a flexible, quick response unit, assaulted the area by helicopter. Within minutes of securing a compound, they came under heavy fire from fighters on all sides and hiding in the tree line. The gun battle raged for more than 12 hours the first day, 10 hours the second, with soldiers nearly going "black," or out of ammunition, before a resupply chopper bailed them out. Air support, in the form of helicopter gunships, fighter jets and bombers that loom overhead with devastating weapons at the ready, is a crucial U.S. advantage. Indeed, when the engagement ended, officers estimate that close to 20,000 lb. (9,000 kg) of ordnance was dropped.

Since then, it has been a steady grind. In the latest phase of the operation, the scouts were tasked with supporting another company engaged in house-to-house clearing aimed at extending the security belt further away from the highway, while armored vehicles plowed up roads for bombs. Massive booms erupted in the distance over the first few days, some going off beneath the hulking vehicles, but mostly from air strikes against various IED-placement teams spotted by the balloon cameras and unmanned drones that also prowl the skies. The crescendo peaked at around noon on Day Two, when a 500-lb. (230 kg) bomb crashed to earth less than a half-mile from where the scout platoon was holed up, instantly killing a pair of Taliban bombmakers.

But, as one Scout bluntly put it, "We have air support. The Taliban has IEDs." Of the dozens of casualties suffered by 101st Airborne Division so far, more than 80% have been caused by IEDs. They come in every conceivable form, spanning the ordinary (pressure plates, trip wires, remote control) to the elaborate (directional fragmentation devices, which might be triggered on the ground and explode sideways, and crush boxes that can be stepped on multiple times before finally detonating). The dizzying array of booby traps demands that soldiers keep an eye on the ground even as they survey the badlands around them for signs of trouble. A fatal pop could happen anywhere. "If you get lazy, you can be sure an IED will be there. It's a minefield," says Captain Bill Faucher, 25, who cited hypervigilance and good fortune as reasons why no one in his platoon has gotten hurt.

Faced with a White House war review due in December and decreasing public support for the war back home, the U.S. military is not in a position to hold back. The current phase of operations is geared to make a statement: drive the fight as aggressively as possible and rout the Taliban in their own backyard. Looking forward, commanders posit that improved civilian freedom of movement and a stronger government presence will be reliable gauges of progress. But it remains to be seen just what metrics will be enough to convince the Obama Administration that serious money and manpower should be poured into a conflict now entering its 10th year.

One way or another, with plans taking shape to advance deeper into militant territory, the heavy firefights are sure to resume. The Taliban has proven a stubborn, scrappy foe, and with several hundred fighters still in Zhari and the fighting season winding down, they can be expected to leverage all assets to keep their home turf. A local commander is known to have said as much, exhorting fighters to hold the key district at any cost. While Mullah Omar may be long gone, his hardened followers are hell-bent on staying.