HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan — The smell of fresh-cut wood permeates the air at this former Canadian strongpoint on the western edge of the troublesome Zhari district of Kandahar province.
A year ago, the base near Howz-e-Madad was home to a handful of Canadian infantry and a few dozen Afghan National Army soldiers.
Today, it is a bustling military base bursting at the seams with U.S. and Afghan soldiers, and a prime example of the sea change in the coalition war effort since the U.S. refocused its war effort on Afghanistan last year.
The last American combat brigade left Iraq last week, and by the fall the U.S. will have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.
That change is evident in the rapidly expanding base on the edge of Zhari, an area referred to by western troops as the Frontier, and for good reason. A few kilometres to the south of the base is the village of Sangasar, where hardline Islamic cleric Mullah Omar founded the Taliban in 1994.
“Zhari is probably about 90 per cent contested, or else flat-out under Taliban control because we’ve never had the coalition or Afghan security force capacity to go out there,” Brig.-Gen. Frederick Hodges, commander of current operations for the coalition’s Regional Command South, said in a recent interview.
Despite its endless rows of grapefields and abundant crops of pomegranate and, yes, marijuana, the area remains poor even by the standards of poverty stricken Afghanistan.
“A lot of the population has moved out of there but it is literally the heartland for the Taliban. It is where Mullah Omar pretty much grew up,” said Hodges.
“So you’ve got perhaps a larger group of very conservative Pashtuns who are, if not supportive of the Taliban, more tolerant.”
Col. Tooryalai Siddiqui, commander of the 1st Battalion of the Afghan National Army stationed at Howz-e-Madad with the U.S. Army 101st Airborne’s 2-502, said Taliban come to the area to plan attacks and to block the road going to Kandahar city.
Highway 1, the main highway connecting Kandahar to the capital of Kabul, bisects Zhari district and is a favoured area for insurgents to attack coalition convoys and “tax” locals to fund their fight.
Siddiqui described a cat and mouse game played between Taliban and coalition and Afghan forces in the region for years.
“The ANA and ISAF they have cleared the villages (before),” he said, but weren’t able to maintain their presence.
“We tried … to clear the area but we must keep the control. When we leave, they come back in the area. That’s the big problem.”
The coalition is hopeful it will not be a problem any more.
There are 30,000 more U.S. soldiers in Kandahar province alone with the American troop surge, and coalition forces will eventually turn their attention to two remaining Taliban strongholds — Zhari and Panjwaii, one of two districts where Canadian Forces have concentrated their efforts for the final year of their combat mission.
“We’ve got a tough challenge there and come late fall we’ll have enough Afghan security forces as well as our own forces… we can then turn our attention to Zhari,” said Hodges.
Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, said there will be enough troops in Kandahar to deliver “stabilizing influences” to the vast majority of Kandahar residents.
“We will not have — nor I don’t think did we ever state that we would have — all the forces necessary to completely eradicate any insurgent anywhere in the country. That’s not the objective here,” he said.
The objective is to bring as much stability as possible to as many Afghans as possible.
“Yes, I think what we’re doing and what we’re planning to do with the forces that are here and that are coming is an effective approach. We see that the formula works. We’re working it. It takes time,” Vance said.