The leaders of the largest tribe in a Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province have pledged to halt insurgent attacks and expel foreign fighters from one of the most violent spots in the country, the senior U.S. Marine general in Afghanistan said Monday.
Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who commands coalition forces in the southwest, said the deal was struck between local elders in the Sangin district and Helmand Governor Gulabuddin Mangal with the consultation of coalition forces. The area has witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
However it is unlikely that the violence will cease immediately in Sangin as the die-hard Taliban leadership under the command of Mullah Mohammad Omar, which is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, will keep fighting.
But the cooperation of the tribal leaders in the effort to rid the area of insurgents could help shorten the war in one of the most violent places in Afghanistan.
In the past four years, more than 100 British troops died in Sangin and more than a dozen Marine have lost their lives since their deployment in mid-October. Getting local tribal elders to renounce the Taliban and join the political process has been a key part of the U.S. counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan.
As part of the deal, Mills said “there was also a pledge from the elders that fighting would cease by insurgents against coalition forces and foreign fighters would be expelled from the area.”
He added that “we are cautiously optimistic of this agreement and will monitor whether it leads to reduced insurgent influence and a rejection of illicit activity.”
With the nearly decade-old war growing increasing unpopular in the United States and in many NATO capitals, success on the battlefield is an important part of President Obama’s plan to begin a gradual withdrawal of American forces in July, and eventually hand over control of the country’s security to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
The war is also very costly at a time when the U.S. is slowly starting to emerge from recession. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States spent an average of $5.4 billion a month in Afghanistan in the budget year that ended in September, and the total cost since the war began stands at $336 billion.
The deal was made with the Alikozai tribe, the largest in the Sarwan-Qalah area of the Upper Sangin Valley. The tribe controls the majority of the 30 villages located in a 17-square-kilometer region, said Mangal spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. The tribe last rose up against the Taliban in 2007 but failed because of a lack of resources and coalition help.
Sangin is a strategic region for the Taliban and one they do not want to lose. It is a key crossroads to funnel drugs, weapons and fighters throughout Helmand and into neighboring Kandahar province, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. It is also one of the last remaining sanctuaries in Helmand where the Taliban can freely process the opium and heroin that largely fund the insurgency.
“The insurgents have already begun to strike back savagely at those who desire peace but so far the elders remain steadfast,” Mills said in a statement.
Mills said that his forces would continue to push into Taliban and insurgent-controlled areas and would fight back if confronted.
According to Mangal’s office, the deal was struck on Saturday in the center of Sangin after 25 days of negotiations.
“As they are the majority in that area we can say this will be a successful process in that area,” Ahmadi said.
As part of the counterinsurgency plan mapped out by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, once an area is cleared of insurgents, development and reconstruction aid will follow.
“They want schools, medical clinics and the freedom to move about without fear of the insurgency,” Mills said.
A senior NATO official said that coalition forces will keep pressure on insurgents in 2011 to lock in the gains made on the battlefield despite taking a record number of casualties last year.
“There will be no end of the fighting season and we will maintain pressure on the insurgency everywhere. We will do more of everything, in terms of military and kinetic activities, more development more reintegration activities,” coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said.
He said last year’s infusion of more than 30,000 troops, mostly from the United States, helped turn the tide in many parts of Afghanistan, especially in the south.
But Blotz added that “these gains are not yet irreversible, they are still fragile.”
Also unclear is what gains have been made against insurgent groups in the north and east, especially along the porous frontier with Pakistan. Many insurgent groups use safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas to launch attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has been carrying out drone strikes against those safe havens and has tried to pressure the Pakistani military to move against extremists in place like North Waziristan — a request Pakistan has so far refused. The Pakistani military has said it is too busy dealing with its own Taliban insurgents in other areas.
The surge in troops has also led to an increase in casualties — both from coalition countries and Afghan security forces.
“This is a necessary phase in the overall strategy and before it gets better it has to get worse. Unfortunately this is what we saw toward the end of 2010,” Blotz said.
A record 702 of the coalition’s service members were killed in 2010. But the Afghan police and the military have also shouldered a heavy toll with 1,292 members of the police force and 806 soldiers were killed last year, according to Afghan statistics.
story by: Patrick Quinn
photo courtesy of: USMC