ASHEQUE, Afghanistan — Zhari, the birthplace of the Taliban movement and once again a major stronghold of the Taliban insurgency, looks set to become a battle zone where some 2,400 U.S. troops will lead an attempt to reclaim the region for the Afghan government.
Zhari district is the last major piece in the slow-moving, behind-schedule military operation to repel the insurgency from Kandahar province and safeguard the city of Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, to the east.
Mullah Mohammad Omar founded the militant Islamic Taliban movement in Zhari — which was created recently from parts of two other districts — and in 1994 led a popular uprising against feuding warlords who were setting up roadblocks, robbing travelers at gunpoint and molesting their children.
The Taliban first secured Zhari, where Mullah Omar ran a seminary in the village of Singesar, and the portion of National Highway 1 that passes through the area, and went on to conquer much of the country over the next two years.
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The Taliban abandoned Zhari in the face of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, but they made a forceful return in 2006. They've established an administrative structure, including tax collection and courts.
"This area is the Taliban's Washington D.C," said Lt. Col. Johnny Davis, the commander of one of the three fighting battalions of the 101st Airborne Division that were deployed to Zhari in May.
He noted that until this summer, the U.S.-led international force hadn't made Kandahar a priority, devoting its resources instead to adjacent Helmand province.
"The required concentration of coalition forces has not been here, but the concentration of Taliban is just as high as Helmand," said Davis, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment.
Davis, 42, who's from Milwaukee, was slightly injured when the Taliban ambushed his convoy on the highway in June.
For much of the time since 2006, a Canadian company of around 200 soldiers had fought a losing battle to clear the Taliban out of Zhari. Today, the 101st Airborne's battalions provide a combat strength of some 2,400 soldiers there.
Securing Highway 1, an arterial road that circles the country, through Zhari is now the task of U.S.-led forces, mirroring the original move of the Taliban.
The insurgents are holed up in a 25-mile sliver of lush farmland south of the highway that's known to the U.S. military as the "green zone," where trees and fields of grapes and pomegranates provide excellent cover. Some have dubbed the area "the breadbasket of the Taliban."
The terrain is ideal for guerrilla warfare. A network of irrigation canals crisscrosses it and grape fields are laid out on earthen mounds 3 feet or more high — a unique feature of the area built to keep the fruit off the ground — while grape storage huts with 2-foot-thick mud walls have withstood 500-pound bombs.
"These grape fields are agrarian trench lines. This is not Napa Valley," said Capt. Dan Luckett, the executive officer at combat outpost Asheque, which is inside the Zhari farm belt, surrounded by Taliban-held villages. "It's a smoker" to patrol.
"You can secure the highway all day long, but what's affecting it is the green zone, the staging points," said Luckett, 26, from Norcross, Ga., who has one prosthetic leg due to a homemade-bomb strike in Iraq.
Zhari is sparsely populated. The town of Senjaray, in the east of the district, is the only major urban center, and the Taliban make their presence known there almost nightly with attacks on coalition or Afghan security forces. Small settlements of mud-brick villages, whose conservative culture provided the basis of the Taliban's extreme interpretation of Islam, sprinkle the rest of Zhari.
American forces think there are signs that the Taliban don't have popular support, at least in parts of Zhari. The residents of many villages have abandoned their homes because of the Taliban presence. The poorer ones moved just north of Highway 1 to makeshift new communities, while the wealthier ones moved to Kandahar city.
"I was surprised that people were afraid of the Taliban here. I had expected a lot of hard-core support. So we have a chance. People want to move back to their homes," said Capt. Brant Auge, the commander of the outpost at Asheque.
"We're trying to stress to the people that this (coalition military presence) is not something they've seen for the last nine years," said Auge, a 30-year-old from Ocean Springs, Miss. "We're trying to create a bubble, hold down the Taliban long enough to allow the local security forces to be in a position to take over."
This year, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force's major offensives have been an operation that began in February to wrest control of Marjah, a town in Helmand province, from Taliban control amid a blaze of publicity but mixed results, followed by the lower-key attempt to secure parts of Kandahar province.
. Coalition forces already have secured much of the area north of Kandahar city — the Arghandab valley, which provided the other major route into town — and moved to improve security within the city. Zhari is the last piece of the Kandahar problem.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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