Checkpoints key to upcoming U.S.-Afghan offensive
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When the U.S. and Afghan militaries begin their longawaited Kandahar operation as early as this weekend, the key to its success might lie in some obscure mountain roads that connect the dusty heartland of the Taliban insurgency with a fertile valley nearby.
One is the “Ant Pass,” a rocky passage through which Taliban fighters have shuttled in and out of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, to attack U.S. convoys, assassinate Afghan officials, plant roadside bombs and target international aid offices.
After a series of frustrating delays, U.S. and Afghan forces aim to transform this narrow gateway into a crucial choke point on the eve of the initial showdown in the Arghandab Valley, which stretches out below the pass. Afghan police check a motorcycle heading to the city of Kandahar at a new checkpoint on a pass leading to the Arghandab Valley.
With U.S. soldiers keeping watch, specially trained Afghan police officers stand alongside towering new concrete barriers that divide the two-lane highway, which runs from the Arghandab into one of Kandahar’s more Taliban- friendly neighborhoods.
In the coming days, hundreds of Afghan and U.S. soldiers will descend on the Arghandab in an attempt to push an estimated 150 to 200 Taliban militants out of the valley’s vineyards and groves.
The long-anticipated battle, which is expected to last about two weeks, will be the first serious test for U.S. and Afghan forces in Kandahar this summer. If the Taliban can be chased out of the Arghandab and kept out, the troops will turn toward battling militants in even more dangerous parts of Kandahar province.
The ring of checkpoints is the most visible manifestation of the military plans.
Though the security web is incomplete, NATO’s top military strategists are betting that the checkpoints will frustrate Taliban attackers trying to hit Kandahar and force them out of the Arghandab.
The Taliban already have set their sights on the security ring. On July 13, suicide bombers hit the main Afghan police compound in Kandahar that’s responsible for the checkpoints. The sophisticated attack killed three U.S. soldiers, an Afghan police officer and three Afghan interpreters.
“That security ring is a filter,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, director of NATO operations in southern Afghanistan. “It’s not a ring of steel. It’s not a defensive belt. It’s a filter to separate insurgents from the population. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the enemy is going to come after these things, because they have been very effective.”