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Context of 'Early Morning July 2, 2009: US Marines Launch ‘Operation Khanjar’ Offensive in the Heart of Helmand’s Poppy-Growing Districts'

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Thousands of US Marines launch Operation Khanjar (“Strike of the Sword”) in a campaign to assert control in the lower Helmand River valley, a stronghold of the Taliban and other insurgent groups and center of the world’s largest opium poppy producing region. Nearly 4,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) are deployed in the offensive, which is being called one of the biggest operations conducted by foreign troops in Afghanistan since the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. Approximately 650 Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police forces also participate in the mission. An adjacent operation called “Panther Claw” initiated by British-led Task Force Helmand has been under way in northern Helmand for a week. Operation Khanjar marks the beginning of a new effort by the US and its allies to assert control in Afghanistan since the arrival of commander General Stanley McChrystal, as well as the first major initiative under the Obama administration’s troop increase and counterinsurgency strategy, which it says is intended to secure and stabilize the country. US commanders say the operation is part of an effort to restore the authority of local government and security forces in Helmand and to secure the region for the presidential elections scheduled for August. “What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build, and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” says Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commanding general of the MEB in Afghanistan. US Forces reportedly meet with very little direct resistance as insurgents blend into the local population and prepare for later attacks. [Reuters, 7/2/2009; Marines.mil, 7/2/2009]

Entity Tags: Task Force Helmand, Taliban, Larry Nicholson, Obama administration, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Stanley A. McChrystal, North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

US military leaflet dispersed to villages in Paktika and Ghazni provinces, Afghanistan.US military leaflet dispersed to villages in Paktika and Ghazni provinces, Afghanistan. [Source: CBS]The US military blankets at least two southeastern Afghan villages with leaflets made at Bagram Air Base that threaten to “target” villagers with aggressive measures if a US soldier who was kidnapped by the Taliban in the area is not freed. Villagers tell CBS News that aircraft drop the leaflets over a period of several days, and that the papers are found stuck in trees and scattered on rooftops. One side of the leaflet shows a US soldier with his head bowed and the message, “If you do not free the American soldier, then…” The message continues on the other side: “… you will be targeted” (or “hunted,” according to one translation) over an image of Western troops kicking down a door to break into a house. Military spokeswoman Captain Elizabeth Mathias later confirms that the leaflets are produced at Bagram Air Base and distributed in the region. She will contradict the villagers’ account, however, saying they were distributed by hand, not by aircraft. Mathias then explains that another, non-threatening leaflet was dropped from aircraft in the region. This leaflet informs locals that a US soldier is missing and requests information on his whereabouts. Mathias’ colleague, Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker, says no threats were made in this air-dropped leaflet, which, according to the US military’s translation, reads: “One of our American guests is missing. Return the guest to his home.” The leaflet includes a phone number and shows a US soldier sitting among smiling Afghan children. Taliban commander Mawlavi Sangin tells Reuters that US forces have been harassing Afghans in Paktika and Ghazni provinces over the kidnapping. “They have put pressure on the people in these two provinces and if that does not stop we will kill [the kidnapped US soldier],” Sangin says by telephone. [CBS News, 7/16/2009; Reuters, 7/16/2009]
Winning over and Protecting the Local Population? - The US military launched a major operation in the southern province of Helmand on July 2 (see Early Morning July 2, 2009) under US President Obama’s recent troop escalation and counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan that new US commander Stanley McChrystal has said is intended, in part, to “win over” and protect the Afghan people. “At the end of the day, you’re fighting for the population, not with the population or against the population,” McChrystal tells the New York Times. [New York Times, 7/15/2009]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Elizabeth Mathias, Christine Sidenstricker, Bagram Air Base, Stanley A. McChrystal, Mawlavi Sangin

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Villagers from towns in Helmand province accuse provincial Afghan police forces of perpetrating abuse against the local population recently and in the period before the Taliban re-gained control of the region. The reports include accusations of extortion and the rape of pre-teen boys. Villagers tell US and British troops who have arrived in the area for major operations (see Early Morning July 2, 2009) about the abuses, and say that the local police are a bigger problem than the Taliban. In fact, village elders say that they are willing to support the Taliban against coalition troops if these police forces are allowed to return. The accusations are acknowledged by some Western civilian and military officials, but their response is tepid. Adding to the problem of abuse and corruption is that the districts where the US-British military operation in Helmand is taking place are especially sensitive because they contain the main opium poppy fields in the province. Some of the police are linked to the private militia of a powerful warlord who has been implicated in drug trafficking. Former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, says that the problem is not surprising and can be traced back to the creation of the national police after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001 (see November 13, 2001). Neumann recalls that the Afghan police were “constituted from the forces that were then fighting the Taliban.” [Inter Press Service, 7/29/2009]
Child Rape, Extortion - “The police would stop people driving on motorcycles, beat them, and take their money,” says Mohammad Gul, an elder in the village of Pankela, which British troops have been operating for the past three days. Gul also points to two compounds where pre-teen boys have been abducted by police to be used for the local practice of “bachabazi,” or sex with pre-pubescent boys. “If the boys were out in the fields, the police would come and rape them,” he says. “You can go to any police base and you will see these boys. They hold them until they are finished with them and then let the child go.” The Interior Ministry in Kabul says it will address the reports only after contacting police commanders in the area. [Reuters, 7/12/2009] A villager in the village of Aynak, Ghulam Mohammad, says that villagers are happy with the Afghan army, but not the police. “We can’t complain to the police because they take money and abuse people,” he says. [Associated Press, 7/13/2009]
Some Locals Prefer Taliban to Afghan Police - Mohammad Rasul, an elderly farmer, says that local people rejoiced when the Taliban arrived in the village 10 months ago and drove the police out. Even though his own son was killed by a Taliban roadside bomb five years ago, Rasul says the Taliban fighters earned their welcome in the village by treating people with respect. “We were happy [after the Taliban arrived]. The Taliban never bothered us,” he says. “If [the British] bring these people back, we can’t live here. If they come back, I am sure they will burn everything.” Another resident adds: “The people here trust the Taliban. If the police come back and behave the same way, we will support the Taliban to drive them out.” [Reuters, 7/12/2009] Similarly, within hours of the arrival of US troops in Aynak, villagers report the police abuse to US military officers and claim the local police force is “a bigger problem than the Taliban.” [Associated Press, 7/13/2009]
Police Linked to Narco Warlord's Militia - Afghan police in the province are linked to corrupt local warlord Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh. Akhunzadeh, a former Mujihideen commander and ally of President Hamid Karzai, has been implicated in heroin trafficking and the maintenance of a vengeful private militia from which many of the local police force were drawn under a Karzai plan to form an “Afghanistan National Auxiliary Police.” Akhundzada was the Karzai-appointed governor of Helmand for four years but was forced to step down after a British-trained counter narcotics team found nearly 10 tons of heroin in his basement. He remained powerful in the province, however, after Karzai appointed weak governors and/or allies in his place, allowing him to maintain control of the police, who were drawn in part from his own 500-man private army. Akhundzada’s predatory reign ended in 2008 when the Taliban regained control of the region. [Inter Press Service, 7/29/2009]
Official US and UK Response Tepid - The spokesman for British-led Task Force Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, tells IPS that the task force is aware of the grievances voiced by village elders to British officers. He declines, however, to specify the grievances that are imparted to the British and says, “If there is any allegation, it will be dealt with by the appropriate authorities.” He specifies that this would mean “the chain of command of the Afghan national police.” The spokesman for the US 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), Captain William Pelletier, is even less helpful. He tells IPS that he has no information about the allegations of misconduct by police as reported to British officers. IPS notes that the MEB’s headquarters in Helmand are right next to those of the British Task Force Helmand. Pelletier does not respond to another IPS query about the popular allegations made to US officers of police abuses in the US area of responsibility in Helmand. [Inter Press Service, 7/29/2009]
Training for Afghan National Police - The Associated Press reports that after US troops arrive in the district, they send the old police force in Aynak to a US-sponsored training program called “focused district development.” The program, launched last spring, is geared toward police officers mainly from districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and gives them eight weeks of intense training. Thousands of the nation’s 83,000-strong police force have already undergone training at regional training centers staffed by Western military personnel and police officers hired by US private security firm DynCorp, according to an NPR report. It is unclear whether the abusive police in Aynak had received US training under this program, but the head of the interim police force that replaced the abusive police, Colonel Ghulam, says that these officers had already had training. “They had training but not enough, and that’s why the people had problems with them,” he says. [National Public Radio, 3/17/2008; Associated Press, 7/13/2009]

Entity Tags: Task Force Helmand, Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh, Taliban, Ronald Neumann, Hamid Karzai, Nick Richardson, Afghan Ministry of Interior, Afghan National Army, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Afghan National Police, DynCorp International, Ghulam, Afghan National Security Forces, William Pelletier

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Inter Press Service correspondent Gareth Porter reports that provincial police forces in Helmand province of Afghanistan accused of systemic abuses against the local population are likely returning to the opium-rich area behind US and British forces engaged in major military operations there (see Early Morning July 2, 2009). One stated goal of the coalition operations is to clear out the Taliban and secure the region in order to allow the Afghan National Army and police to take over control of the population. Porter reports that the strategy poses an acute problem because the Afghan police in the province are linked to corrupt local warlord Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh and have systematically committed abuses against the population, including the abduction and rape of pre-teen boys. As a result, the local population has repeatedly expressed a preference for the Taliban over the local police force (see July 12-14, 2009). Akhunzadeh, an ally of President Hamid Karzai, has been implicated in heroin trafficking and the maintenance of a vengeful private militia from which many of the local police force were drawn under a Karzai plan to form an “Afghanistan National Auxiliary Police.” Porter writes that it is not clear whether US and British forces in Helmand will prevent the return of these abusive police. On the one hand, US troops in the town of Aynak have reportedly sent problematic police stationed in the local headquarters out of the province for several weeks of training, replacing them with a unit they had brought with them. Yet this implies the old police will return after training. Furthermore, the spokesman for the British Task Force Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, tells Porter that both the Afghan military and police, who had been ousted by the Taliban before the US-British offensive in Helmand, “are returning to the area bit by bit.” In fact, the Associated Press reports that US troops encountered a group of these police occupying the headquarters when they entered the village of Aynak, suggesting the police force had either returned or had never left. [Associated Press, 7/13/2009; Inter Press Service, 7/29/2009]

Entity Tags: Taliban, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Nick Richardson, Afghan Ministry of Interior, Sher Mohammed Akhunzadeh, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Security Forces, Afghan National Police, Hamid Karzai

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

The July death toll for coalition troops fighting in Afghanistan reaches 47, surpassing full month highs set in August and June 2008. The record toll comes in the two weeks since the US and its allies launched a massive offensive dubbed “Operation Khanjar” in opium-ridden Helmand province as part of the Obama administration’s new escalation and counterinsurgency strategy (see Early Morning July 2, 2009). According to a CNN count based on government figures, the deaths in July so far include 23 Americans, 15 Britons, five Canadians, two Turks, an Italian, and a NATO soldier whose nationality has not been revealed. [CNN, 6/16/2009]
Surge and Death Rate Mirror Iraq War - In the two weeks coinciding with the launch of US-led “Operation Khanjar,” international troops have died at an average rate of three a day, which is almost 20 times the rate in Afghanistan from 2001-04 and approaching the death rate of the deadliest days in Iraq. “It is something we did anticipate occurring as we extend our influence in the south,” says US Rear Admiral Greg Smith, spokesman for US and NATO forces, adding that the increased violence is likely to continue for several months at minimum. The Obama administration’s escalation strategy resembles some tactics of the “surge” of additional forces that then-President Bush ordered in Iraq in 2007, which saw months of increased American casualties before violence declined (see December 30, 2007). The US military does not use the term “surge” to refer to the increase in forces in Afghanistan because the escalation is considered indefinite as opposed to the time limit the Bush administration set in Iraq. [Reuters, 6/15/2009]

Entity Tags: Obama administration, Gregory Smith, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Taliban

Timeline Tags: War in Afghanistan

US troop deaths in Afghanistan reach 31, the highest toll for US troops in Afghanistan in any month since the war began in late 2001, surpassing the previous record of 28 deaths in June 2008. “This is probably the new normal,” says Seth G. Jones, an analyst for the Rand Corporation and author of a new book on the war in Afghanistan. “I’d actually be shocked if casualties didn’t continue to increase.” The Washington Post notes that although thousands of US Marines are in the midst of a major operation in the southern province of Helmand (see Early Morning July 2, 2009), American troops suffer the heaviest losses in the eastern part of the country where 16 US soldiers have been killed so far this month. The majority of the fatalities are caused by roadside bombs, which have grown increasingly sophisticated. [Washington Post, 7/22/2009] By the end of the month, the death toll for US troops will reach at least 43 among 75 coalition troops killed. [Voice of America, 7/31/2009] A similar spike in US military fatalities occurred in Iraq in 2007 just after then-President George W. Bush dispatched around 30,000 additional troops to the country (see December 30, 2007). US troop levels will roughly double this year in Afghanistan, a rate of increase sharper than that of the Iraq “surge” ordered by Bush (see January 10, 2007). [Washington Post, 7/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Obama administration, Seth Jones

Timeline Tags: War in Afghanistan

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