HELMAND - Residents of Helmand, the southern Afghanistan province that the US Marines are currently storming in their biggest operation since Fallujah 2004, knew this was coming. I just returned with Anup Kaphle from a short trip there and observed not only a highly fragile, Taliban-friendly land, but also one being steadily and conspicuously stocked with men and materiel, and prepared for an invasion like the one now underway.
British forces drive through a suburb of Lashkar Gah. (Photo: Anup Kaphle)
We shadowed the British army in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital, and took one long road journey to Lashkar from Camp Bastion, the nucleus of international forces in Helmand and the largest military air hub in the province. We proceeded along that road at a crawl, tentative and cautious because the route is heavily sown with roadside bombs. Every few miles, the roadside showed evidence of recent fighting: piles of spent casings, blackened divots from roadside bombs, wrecked mud walls that Taliban used as cover.
The cities was not much better. In Lashkar Gah, Afghans often responded to friendly waves with stares and scowls, and once a kid threw a pear-core at Anup (who dodged it, and let it hit a British soldier nearby). At Peace Chowk, a central Lashkar Gah traffic circle with a statue in the middle depicting a globe borne up by two doves, a car edged near enough to the convoy to draw warning shots -- an occurrence repeated whenever we left the base.
The Marines have been relishing the prospect of a fight, and a fight is what they will get. The comparison to Fallujah makes sense only in the number of Marines deployed: Fallujah city is tight and compact, an urban warfare scenario that proved costly to the Marines but ended in a US victory; Helmand is sprawling and rural, its settlements little more than mud-walled huts at the edge of fields of poppies and wheat. If any Iraqi comparison is merited, perhaps Helmand is a distant cousin of Karmah, the rural district outside Fallujah that I visited just a week ago, and that the Marines have never fully pacified, even after five years of occupation. If the Taliban wish to make a stand here, the task of clearing and holding and building huge take huge efforts, of a degree not yet expended even in Iraq.
We'll post more about our stay in Helmand during the next several days.