Sept. 25, 2010 -- In the early morning hours Saturday approximately 8,000 US troops, most of them soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division along with Afghan and International forces launched three simultaneous attacks along the Arghendab River Valley to take and hold territory in places where the US nor Afghan government has ever had a presence.
Throughout the night loud explosions echoed through the Valley as 72-ton Assault Breacher Vehicles cleared wide paths through the thick agricultural area along the Arghendab River which soldiers call "the greens." Smaller mine clearing charges were used to clear foot paths of possible improvised explosive devices. The threat of IEDs is the biggest threat to soldiers as they move into territory controlled by the Taliban for years. Soldiers spent much of the night stringing the plastic explosive C4 to trees and walls to destroy known Taliban fighting positions.
The operation called Dragon Strike started last week with a series of smaller maneuvers intended to soften enemy infrastructure and draw out insurgents ahead of the main attack. "This is it" said LTC Johnny Davis, Commander of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. "This is where you separate the enemy from the people. This is one of the many phases where we not only bring heavy security but we bring governance where governance has not been before."
The overall goal of the operation is to control access and movement along the fertile Arghendab River Valley which runs north and west of Kandahar City. The river runs to Helmand province serving as a sort of superhighway for insurgents to move fighters, weapons, drugs, money and supplies throughout southern Afghanistan. Control of the river valley is viewed as a strategic necessity for taming the insurgency.
Operation Dragon Strike is concentrated on the Zhari District of Kandahar Province just west of Kandahar City. Zhari is called the gateway to Kandahar not only because it's the first district west of the city but also because a wide mountain pass allows easy access to the city.
Though a massive operation, Dragon Strike is only part of an ongoing effort across Kandahar Province and Afghanistan to wrest control from the Taliban, build up local governance and win over a wary population. Senior military officials liken the offensive in Kandahar to "squeezing an orange" that will take months to complete. Only then can US forces theoretically shift gears from fighting to building governance and trust. They have a long way to go.
In Sengaray, a tightly packed community of some 10,000 inhabitants in the Zhari district little has changed since the 101st Airborne came to town in May. Some locals engage soldiers who patrol the streets as often as three times a day but for the most part they keep their distance. Soldiers believe that once major elements of the Taliban are killed, captured or routed the public will be far less intimidated and more easily accept the new reality of the nascent Afghan government.
Though US and Canadian forces have been present in Zhari district for years they've never had the soldiers or firepower to punch into enemy territory and hold hard-fought ground. With the addition of thousands of troops called up as part of President Obama's strategy troop strength has increased dramatically throughout Afghanistan, particularly in the south where there has been a 6 fold increase in places. Add to that thousands of Afghan forces that have closely partnered and trained with U.S. units from platoon all the way up to brigade level over the last five months.
"We are clearing as far as we can hold" said Colonel Arthur Kandarian, Commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, in reference to the military's "clear, hold and build" strategy employed in Iraq. Since arriving in May soldiers of the 101st Airborne have expanded their presence and reach throughout their sprawling area of operation. They have trained and re-trained Afghan forces on everything from marksmanship to battlefield maneuvering to logistics. It's been a steep learning curve.
Just two months ago some Afghan units had to be pulled from the field for further training. Now Afghan forces may not be perfect but commanders and officials say they are ready enough.
Captain Brant Auge, Bravo Company Commander says it's more than just training the Afghan soldiers. "We've been building up till now" he says "assessing the situation, learning what we can about the people what their needs and just building up forces and now we kind of reached that culmination point where we're just ready to go."
Even if operation Dragon Strike is overwhelmingly successful few here think it will have long lasting effects if the Afghan Government doesn't step up and actually govern.
"The reason it hasn't worked is because we are giving people a choice between us and the Taliban" says Captain Auge. "The Afghan government is the key, cause they're the ones who can win this thing. It's not a choice between us and the Taliban it's a choice between the Afghan government and the Taliban."