In March, US troops carried out an operation to secure the volatile district of Nerkh, just south of Kabul. They thought it will take them less than a week to bring ‘visible improvements’, establish a couple of shuras and ‘local police’. A Spanish journalist witnessed this operation and found that nothing of this finally materialised – a case far from the positive picture General Petraeus recently presented to his country’ Congress. AAN has translated and summarised her articles; the context is by AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig.
‘[W]e have […] expanded considerably joint ISAF-Afghan operations to clear the Taliban from important, long-held safe havens and then to hold and build in them. ISAF and Afghan troopers have, for example, cleared […] areas that expand the Kabul security bubble’, General David Petraeus said in his briefing of the US Congress on 15 March in Washington (read his full statement here). One result of such operations has been […] the gradual development of local governance and economic revival in the growing security bubbles.
Wardak province – to the southwest of the capital -, of which Nerkh is a district, belongs to the ‘Kabul security bubble’. The US military has been worried about Taleban inroads into areas just outside the gates of Kabul since quite a while and have increased their presence and sequence of operations there significantly. In Wardak alone, two major bases have been built, one in Seyyedabad district.
The results, however, are mixed at best. Reports regularly received from locals who either live there or with relatives in Wardak indicate a steady deterioration of the security situation particularly in the area which is known as the Seyyedabad gorge. The road leading through it is a short-cut that links the Kabul-Gardez and the Kabul-Ghazni-Kandahar road, allowing truck drivers to avoid snailing through Kabul city’s traffic collapse. Before the road was asphalted, AAN members were able to visit this area without any problem for picnics and to swim in Wardak river. When the road was finally improved in 2006, traffic initially increased – both Afghan commercial but also US military. The latter drew in insurgents, however. The number of IEDs increased. According to Wardak locals, their density has become so high of late that the two US bases are no longer supplied by road but by air. Remember (then General) Eikenberry’s sentence that the insurgency starts where the road ends?
Nerkh district, to the north of Seyyedabad, also is heavily influenced by insurgents. This made it the target for a one-week US operation in March. Mónica Bernabé, a Spanish free-lance journalist mainly for Madrid-based El Mundo and an occasional guest blogger for AAN, had been able to witness this operation as an embedded journalist. In two articles (here and here *), she has described what she has seen.
‘The operation consisted, on paper, in a massive deployment of US troops in the area, the building of a joint military base with the Afghan security forces, and in establishing contacts with the locals to carry out reconstruction projects to kill two birds with a stone: create job opportunities and achieving visible improvements in the district in less than one week time.’
The timeline as explained to Wardak governor Halim Fedai by the operation’s commander was rather ambitious:
‘One day before the operation kicks off we’ll have a shura on the extension of security in the area, and another one aimed at recruiting future local police […]. The following day we will summon another shura for the reintegration of Taleban fighters who want to lay down their arms. It will be a wonderful occasion for you to give a public speech. There are people in Nerkh who never had a chance to listen to one of your speeches.’ […] On the fourth day of the operation a shura of farmers will be held, with the objective of promoting a farmers’ association in Nerkh to improve the locals’ capacity to commercialize their agricultural products. Moreover, the US troops planned to contact neighbouring villagers to implement improvements in schools and mosques of the district.
For these latter, i.e. small refurbishment projects, an estimated budget of between 40,000 and 60,000 dollars was at the US troops’ disposal, to be spent in a one-week’s span.
‘The operation starts at night-time. The US troops want to enjoy the advantage given to them by their night vision gear. ‘When we got to the target area, everybody was already waiting for us’, relates one of the soldiers who took part in the operation – because of the helicopters’ noise, he explains, but also because the Afghan Army had been informed about the operation. ‘Keeping secrecy over an operation is impossible for the Afghans. If we want them to keep their mouth shut, then we must inform them a few minutes before it actually starts and confiscate their mobile phones’.
But the Americans obviously had forgotten to check the calendar before they commenced their operation. It was Friday, and the district governor of Nerkh could not be moved to squander his day off. But the US troops went ahead anyway with their plan with unabated efficiency:
‘The US soldiers start to widen and level a path leading to the place selected for the base to be built. They do not need the governor at all to do that. Huge excavators remove the earth. The path will be completely altered. They are even going to fill it with gravel that they brought to the bazaar in big trucks. The locals stare at the scene astounded. Some say that never in their lives they have seen an excavator in town, not even working on the major street. The problem is that they do not want the path to be fixes the Americans have chosen, but rather the main road leading to the provincial capital that most of the locals use for transportation. The owners of land adjacent to the path soon start complaining. The fact is that the Americans, widening the passage, are eating up some of their land.
It is also just before the Afghan New Year holiday. Consequently, not only the district governor is busy but the other people also.
‘At the end of the four days, not a single shura has been taken place in Nerkh, and the Taleban have already enacted several attacks against the US troops. [An US officer] admits that the district inhabitants do not show trust.’
The author’s conclusion:
‘Hearts and minds of the Afghan population are not to be won in one week.’
Our latest report from the ‘Kabul security bubble’, from Logar province further east, says that the Taleban now are closing down phone networks there at night since 7 April. To make sure everyone takes their decree seriously, they blew up a phone transmitter in the town of Zarghunshahr that night. This is a 35-minutes drive south of our office.
(*) Original quotes translated from Spanish by AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020