American Troops Target Taliban Stronghold

Every time Staff Sgt. Alan McComie and the men of Alpha Company step across an invisible line not far from this tiny, isolated base, they grab their rifles a little tighter and step a little more carefully. The fighting always begins shortly thereafter.

The Taliban were born here in 1994, just a few miles away in a tiny, now crumbled mosque. They violently defend the land that is most historic to them, and they don't particularly appreciate when McComie comes too close.

"Their defensive belt is just a magical line that they don't want you to cross. And that's where they have their ambushes set up, and the IEDs," McComie says, referring to improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, which have killed so many Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. McComie's best friend died from one just a few months ago.

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Alpha Company arrived in this district just 30 miles from Kandahar City at Christmas, inheriting a land so feared by the Soviet Army in the 1980s, it was nicknamed the "Heart of Darkness." Zhari district has never been controlled by the Canadian or American troops who have served here since 9/11, nor by the Soviets, who lost some of their final battles here.

Today, in Zhari and neighboring Panjway districts, the Taliban maintain massive influence over the area and the people, handing out justice, setting up daytime checkpoints and generally filling a vacuum created by the void of local government, according to local residents. Insurgents also use the area as a supply line and staging ground for attacks in Kandahar City, American military officers say.

Which is why, over the next few months, the two districts will become target number one for thousands of American troops pouring into this region trying to secure Kandahar, the Taliban's physical and spiritual heartland.

"Please don't use my name," says one local residents just a mile from this base when one of the soldiers is asking him questions. "The Taliban will slit my throat."

But making Zhari and Panjway districts secure for the local residents -- and maintaining that security -- will not be easy. Unlike in Kandahar City, where the United States will try to reduce violence primarily with police action, Zhari and Panjway will look more like a traditional infantry fight.

The battles will be made more difficult by a weak and still relatively small Afghan Army presence, and because of the historic shortage of American troops: soldiers here simply do not have the knowledge of the local community it needs to wage a counterinsurgency fight -- and the community does not have faith in the Army.

And the even harder challenge will be to create a local government which, along with Afghan police and army, needs to fill in the vacuum the Taliban have so easily exploited here.

Bloody Fighting Into Early Winter

"I think the government is not even in control of 10 percent of the area," says Mohammed Niyaz Serhadi, who was the district governor until he recently quit to run for parliament. His and his successor's office is inside an American base because of Taliban threats.

American commanders acknowledge there will be bloody fighting here through the fall and into the early winter. McComie's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffry French, predicted in May that the troops who are now arriving in Zhari would "walk into a buzzsaw" without a major operation led by Alpha Company -- and that operation was cancelled at the last minute.

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