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It was a bright and beautiful September dawn. The promise of imminent action made it finer still, keying the senses until they thrilled at the web of rose light cast by the rising sun across the vines and marijuana fields of Zhari district. Catching the rotor tips of the circling Kiowa helicopters in autumnal glow, as the sun broke free from the horizon line, the colours changed again and the world was momentarily cloaked in gold. If only war were always this way.

Weary Afghan and American soldiers return from a patrol in Zhari

Through this luminous wonder trudged man's earthy agents: Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne, uniforms already sweat-stained, crotch-ripped and ragged, the dust puffing smoky wreaths around their boots as they marched to fight. US surge troops, part of the last packet of 15,000 sent to Afghanistan last summer, they had been sent to battle with inspiring words ringing in their ears. 

"The Taliban command in Pakistan have said that if they lose Zhari they'll be forced out of Kandahar," their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Benchoff, had exhorted these men only the previous day. They were on the brink of their entry into Operation Dragon Strike, the year's climactic push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. "So goes Zhari," he added, citing an intercepted intelligence report from the Taliban, "so goes Kandahar city."

He was exaggerating a little, but his words still rang true. Among its many competitors, the district of Zhari is the one rightful heir to the over-used cliché "birthplace of the Taliban". Mullah Omar, Commander of the Faithful and the Taliban's absentee leader, moved to Zhari as a boy. His uncle, who had married his mother after the death of his father, became a local mullah there. Mullah Omar later preached from the mosque in the Zhari village of Sangesar, where in spring 1994 two mujahideen commanders, guilty of rape, were hanged from a tank barrel at his behest. The execution was the first public action of the Taliban, who later that year marched eastward down Highway 1 to seize Kandahar. 

The struggle for the district is something of a microcosm for the surge. With an inhabited area little more than 30 kilometres wide and perhaps eight km deep, squeezed between the Arghandab River to the south and Highway 1 to the north, Zhari's position abutting this crucial communication route to Kandahar had given it disproportionate significance as a staging post for the Taliban. 

By midsummer, supply trucks were getting shot up or bombed along the route several times a week. The insurgents might not have been at the gates of Kandahar but the urban population there knew that the Taliban's parallel system of rule, of courts, taxes and recruitment, existed just west of the city limits. Zhari's flat landscape is a labyrinth of ditches, orchards, mud walls, tree  and narrow horizons which troops likened to the infamous Norman bocage of the Second World War. 

Four donkeys marched alongside Dog Company. Purchased from a local trader at the rip-off rate of $500 a beast, the animals were laden with sappers' equipment, munitions and explosives. Their soldier handlers boasted that they had been instructed to shoot the beasts if they bolted under fire. Instead, one by one the beasts began to lag. Soon, despite a rain of kicks and curses, they refused to move at all.

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December 9th, 2010
12:12 AM
How wishful can one make wishful thinking?

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