Special Report from Afghanistan: The Last Offensive
The city of Ghazni, at the northern edge of the arid plains that stretch south toward Kandahar and the Arghandab River valley, is an ancient and storied city. In its over two millennia of history, it has seen Persian, Macedonian, Arab, Mongol, British, and Soviet invaders. In the tenth century, it was the center of the Turkic Ghaznavid Empire that spread Islam into the Indian sub-continent. In recognition of the city’s history, next year Ghazni City will be honored as the 2013 Center of Islamic Culture. This spring and summer, to the south of the city, in the dusty villages and fields along Afghanistan’s Highway 1 ― the critical artery between Kabul and Kandahar ― Task Force Devil (1st Brigade, 82d Airborne Division) fought the last major offensive of the Afghan war to drive the Taliban out of Ghanzi Province.
It was a daunting task. Before Task Force Devil arrived, in March 2012, there had never been a conventional US brigade in this part of Afghanistan. The Polish brigade ― Task Force White Eagle, headquartered in Ghazni city ― was too small to do much more than secure the highway itself. The Poles were forced to cede the vast plains and the remote villages beyond to Taliban insurgents who used the area to bypass Afghan security forces and transport men and homemade explosives from the porous border with Pakistan to the very outskirts of Kabul.
Over the past six months, Task Force Devil, led by Col. Mark Stock, has waded into these enemy safe havens, closing with and defeating the Taliban wherever it could be found. Fighting by their side has been Afghan security forces from the 3d Brigade, 201st Afghan National Army Corps and the Afghan uniformed police. The fighting was so intense that, this summer, an additional force, Task Force 2 Panther (2d Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment) was activated from America’s global response force and deployed to Ghazni to partner with an Afghan commando battalion and execute air assaults deep inside the Taliban’s Ghazni support zones. Task Force Devil also got help from Task Force Rangers (2d Battalion, 16th Infantry Division), which expanded Afghan Army influence in the hostile district of Andar, in southeast Ghazni.
The hard fighting during this “surge” in eastern Afghanistan has paid off. In the dusty villages of Andar, once firmly in Taliban hands, local leaders ― many of them former Hezb-i-Islami fighters from the Soviet-Afghan War and Afghan Civil War ― have risen up and ousted the Taliban from their towns. Special operations forces are now moving into this void, working with local elders to stabilize these villages and establish Afghan local police forces to harden them against a Taliban return. As the bubble of security has expanded southward along Highway 1, more such movements are springing up in the districts of Qarabagh and Muqor, as well.
While these developments are encouraging, they are also fragile. From the highest coalition force headquarters in Afghanistan to the platoon leaders and company commanders fighting on the ground, everyone is focused on connecting these uprisings to the government of Afghanistan before they whither for lack of support or are crushed by a Taliban counteroffensive. That task has just gotten harder; Task Force Devil’s offensive has ended and the brigade has returned to Fort Bragg, just ahead of the October 1 deadline for US forces in Afghanistan to reduce their numbers to 68,000.
The last offensive of the Afghan war is over, and it has made tangible gains in Ghazni Province. But the question remains: will these gains hold after the snows melt and the Taliban returns next spring?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.
Lt.Col. Pat Proctor is currently deployed to eastern Afghanistan, serving as the chief of plans for the 1st Infantry Division. He is a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan wars and the author of Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq. He is also a doctoral candidate in history at Kansas State University.