KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The white flags of the Taliban no longer fly from neighborhoods in Kandahar City, as they did in some areas only two weeks ago, replaced instead by the red, black and green Afghan colors.
But if the Taliban have been driven further underground, there has been no significant let-up in their campaign of terror and assassination against anyone connected with the government or foreign forces.
The long-delayed push by NATO forces has finally come to town, in fits and starts, and with mixed results.
"The deliberate campaign has begun in Kandahar," Gen. David A. Petraeus, the NATO commander, said Aug. 31. "In some areas the Taliban momentum has reversed, but there’s clearly a lot more work to be done."
Several times a day lately, mostly in rural districts just outside the city, there has been the distinct metallic vomiting sound of an American A-10 Warthog attack plane blasting a target with its cannon, which fires 70 30-millimeter shells a second. Fighting in those rural areas has been intense, sometimes with heavy casualties for American troops and Taliban fighters. Inside this city of half a million, the traditional home of the Taliban, though, the coalition’s fight has been much more low-key.
Most of the recent effort has focused on the Mehlajat area, a semi-rural zone in the southwest of the city, and the adjacent District 6. It is a part of Kandahar that bedeviled the Soviets during their occupation, and until a recent joint military operation there, it was the Taliban’s most important redoubt within city limits.
The area was notorious as a place where the police were afraid to patrol and death sentences were handed out by Taliban courts. Hostages were chained to trees for days on end, and government employees hanged from poles. The Taliban’s white flag flew from many of the mud-walled homes, surrounded by dense cornfields and pomegranate orchards laced with twisting lanes and canals, and heavily booby-trapped.
A five-day operation that concluded Aug. 31, mounted at the insistence of the Afghan authorities but backed up by American troops, succeeded in routing the Taliban from the area without a single civilian casualty. Nor was there a single Taliban casualty, and only 21 Taliban suspects were confirmed as captured, according to American officials.
"It’s not perfect, but it’s a good news story," said Lt. Col. John Voorhees of the U.S. Army’s 504th Military Police Battalion, who commanded the American task force that backed up the Afghan police in Mehlajat.
It is also a work in progress, a visit to the area on Monday made clear – what amounts to on-the-job training for many of the Afghans.
The Americans, too, have had to learn fast; many of them are part of this summer’s influx of troops and, like Voorhees’ men, have been in the field for only a month or two. One of the companies in his task force lost two men, who were killed by an improvised bomb in Mehlajat, but otherwise casualties have been slight: five Afghan police officers, wounded by another bomb.
Now the Afghan police and American troops are settling in to create a permanent presence in this quarter of Kandahar City. Many of the 200 Afghan policemen are fresh recruits, straight from a six-week training program; 10 to 20 percent have not even been issued rifles yet, one of their own commanders said and American officers confirmed.
"They get a police baton and that’s all," said Police Col. Abdul Qadim. "Can you imagine coming here with a stick?"
The Americans bring an array of modern weaponry, from surveillance drones to close air support.
"We have to backstop them at every stage," Voorhees said. "But they are out in front."
The Americans also bring a greater appreciation for Afghan sensibilities than in the past. Lt. David Thompson brought along a backpack stuffed with $45,000 in Afghanis, the national currency, and spent $20,000 of that in three days – paying on-the-spot reparations to residents whose homes or fields were damaged in the fighting.
The operation in Mehlajat has three companies of American troops hunkered down in the fields and orchards, patrolling on foot. The Afghans are patrolling on foot with them, and even sleeping in the open.
Qadim is the head of what will become the new Police Substation 15, which at the moment consists of a semicircular trench with an orchard wall at its back and fields of corn and okra in front of it. While the Afghans took a break at sunset to eat their iftar meal on Monday, marking the end of the day’s fasting for Ramadan, Americans took up prone positions atop the ditch’s berm, pulling security for them. Qadim said he was not happy about bedding down in the dirt, but site engineers have already started planning a building there as a joint headquarters for Afghan and American forces.
"We have nothing but this ditch for protection now, but at least it’ll be our turn to serve our country," he said.
People in the area greeted the troops with friendly waves.
"They were truly terrorized before," said Capt. Bradley Rudy, who heads an infantry company that was also part of the operation. "They’re just really glad we’re here now and staying."
Many others, however, liken the operation to squeezing a balloon.
"Kandahar City is getting worse day by day," said Hamidzai Lalay, a former police official who is now running for Parliament, and who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in late July. "The operation in Mehlajat was good but not very effective. Good because no civilians were killed, but the negative part is that most of the insurgents just went to other parts of the city."
On Wednesday, a policeman who was shopping for the coming holiday marking the end of Ramadan was shot to death. On Monday, two policemen and a civilian were shot to death in a local bazaar. On Sunday, a woman who worked for a humanitarian organization as a security guard was shot to death by gunmen who forced their way into her house. Also on Sunday, an employee working for an Afghan contractor who did business with the Americans was kidnapped from a restaurant in the city center, which has a police post right in front of it.
One recent local media account put the number of assassinations in Kandahar City since mid-June at 397, suggesting a rate of four or five a day, a pace that appears to be continuing.
American officials will not confirm those numbers.
"The city still has its challenges, that’s all I can say," said Lt. Col. Victor Garcia, the deputy commander of Task Force Raider, in overall charge of Kandahar City. "I don’t want to go into any more details."