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News and Views

US beefs up efforts to secure Kandahar

By Matthew Green in Kandahar

July 5 2010

The US military has deployed its heaviest troop presence in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

The forces form the vanguard of an operation aimed at securing the movement’s heartland.

US paratroopers are building checkpoints on main roads and conducting patrols with Afghan police in an attempt to deny insurgents access to the country’s second-largest city and reassure a population living in fear of suicide bombings.

“Kandahar city, because of the lack of forces, has been an intelligence black hole,” Lieutenant-Colonel David Oclander told the Financial Times, speaking at one of the half-completed checkpoints.“Now we’re going to start work and really get a much better picture from our efforts to get to know our neighbours.”

Lt-Col Oclander commands a battalion of US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division that has fanned out to outposts in the city’s suburbs over the past few weeks. A US infantry battalion typically comprises about 700 troops.

The deployment represents a sharp increase in the number of US troops in Kandahar, which had previously consisted of a small unit deployed to train Afghan police and special forces conducting operations to hunt down insurgent leaders.

The Afghan government has sent 600 officers of the Afghan National Civil Order Police to Kandahar to work alongside the US troops. US officers regard them as better trained than Afghanistan’s mainstream police force, which has a reputation for corruption and ill-discipline.

The police will man the 13 checkpoints that the US paratroopers aim to complete this month. Each installation is like a miniature military base, with living quarters for troops, blast walls and guard towers. Drivers waiting while police search their vehicles for weapons or bomb-making materials will be able to peruse billboards containing pro-government messages and wanted posters featuring Taliban commanders.

Nato commanders regard the campaign to secure Kandahar, a city of an estimated 800,000 people, as critical to their strategy to bring the insurgency under control before US troops are due to start leaving Afghanistan next July.

Insurgents have waged a campaign of intimidation, suicide bombings and assassinations in response, feeding concerns in the west over whether the surge strategy of Barack Obama, the US president, can tame the Taliban.

The fate of the operation will hinge on whether the presence of the US and Afghan security forces can change the mood in a city where fear of the Taliban and disillusionment with the government of Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, run deep.

Resentment of the influence wielded by Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half-brother who chairs Kandahar’s provincial council, has fuelled sympathy for the insurgents in some communities.

The US also plans to deploy thousands of troops to root out insurgents from havens in rural districts to the north and west of the city.

Although the offensive was widely expected to take place this summer, the bulk of these operations are now due to take place later this year.

Some residents were anxious about the prospect of US forces moving into their neighbourhoods, fearing the checkpoints will be targets for attacks. US officers acknowledged that insurgents might be able to circumvent the barriers but said their presence would make it harder for them to influence the city.

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