As Afghan security forces take the lead with the drawdown of coalition troops, they are increasingly able to choose their missions, and this one had been a long time coming.
For 10 years, the Taliban controlled a 10-mile stretch of red earth known as the “Road of Martyrs” in northwestern Kandahar province. By fortifying the road with seven bands of improvised explosive devices, they denied all but a few Afghans access to the site of the Battle of Maiwand, graveyard to 3,000 Afghans, and the nearby Shrine to Malalai.
Nearly 1,000 British troops were killed before their army was defeated in the Battle of Maiwand in July 1880, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
Early this month, a team of Afghan National Security Forces and their U.S. partners from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment seized control of the road, thus ending the Taliban reign over route Sheyhedan.
Eight insurgents were killed and 57 IEDs were cleared during the four-day operation, which yielded no coalition or Afghan casualties.
“It’s a great day for our people, for our communities,” District Gov. Saleh Mohammad said while visiting new checkpoints on the road. “The whole world knows Malalai — especially the British.”
“This battlefield is as important to the Afghans as Gettysburg is to us,” the 4-23’s commander, Lt. Col. Greg Harkins, said.
“You’re talking about a battle that defines the people here. Their soccer team in Kandahar is called the Heroes of Maiwand,” he said.
Mohammad Mirwaais Milyar, an Afghan linguist for the U.S. military, said seizing the road was an important psychological victory over the Taliban, who used its control to wield power and influence in the area.
The shrine, which sits just outside the village of Khig, honors Malalai, an unlikely heroine who rallied her countrymen to victory against the British. Assigned to the battlefield to carry water and treat the wounded, she picked up the Afghan flag when its bearer was killed. She is often referred to as the Afghan Joan of Arc, and every schoolchild in Afghanistan learns the poem dedicated to her:
With a drop of my
Shed in defense of
Will I put a beauty spot
on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden!
“There are very few women who are held in high regard like this in Afghan history,” Harkins said. “Malalai was from this area and she was the one who turned the tide in the battle that day.
“She went to the Afghan soldiers who were retreating and losing hope, and she told them that they needed to fight for their country. They did, and she was killed during the battle,” Harkins said.
“Malalai is not just a hero; she’s a martyr who can talk to God,” Milyar said.
“In Afghanistan, if girls want to talk about rights, she’s the first example,” he said.
According to Milyar, Malalai is a common name for Afghan women. His youngest sister is named after her.
Harkins’ battalion belongs to Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The battalion has about 700 soldiers, and it has seen some of the toughest fighting within the 4,000-soldier brigade. Four of the brigade’s nine fatal casualties from this deployment were soldiers serving with the 4-23.
The battalion last served in Afghanistan in 2009-10, when it earned a Navy Presidential Unit Citation for its service fighting with Marines in Helmand province.
While Afghan and coalition forces don’t expect a counterattack, they do expect the Taliban to try to regain influence in the area. Seven checkpoints, requiring an enormous amount of resources to sustain, have been established along the road and near the shrine.
“I think they would give up other parts of Maiwand before they would give up the ground that they’ve just taken,” Harkins said about the Afghan forces.
“Based on the way they’re executing their operations, it’s very clear that they’re never going to give it back.”