Kandahar is the Taliban’s stronghold and target of an allied assault in Afghanistan. Can NATO win hearts and minds as well as territory?
NEAR ZANGABAD, AFGHANISTAN
First came the nightly rocket bombardments, targeting abandoned mud houses about 30 miles southwest of Kandahar City, where Taliban insurgents stored 82mm antitank guns, grenade launchers, and rifles, and where they made bombs and staged attacks on NATO and Afghan forces.
For weeks, NATO and Afghan commando units launched covert raids against Taliban leaders, shattering the insurgency’s local command structure. So many commanders were killed that local tribal elders said even they weren’t sure who was in chargeof insurgent groups any more. The mishmash of vineyards, rivers, and marijuana fields in this slice of Kandahar Province is so easy to defend and so difficult to penetrate that militants and outlaws have sheltered here for as long as anyone can remember.
Then, last month, Afghan and US troops used the cover of night to storm the Horn of Panjwaii – an unruly spit of land posing the last direct threat to Kandahar City; southern Afghanistan‘s political center and the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Airborne assaults on October 15, 16, and 25 were the culmination of months of fighting in the city’s western fringes. Three Afghan National Army battalions – more than 2,000 men – and three companies of US paratroopers rode in on helicopters to attack the cluster of villages of Mushan, Zangabad, and Taluqan, considered key to Kandahar.
“There was fighting – bullets, bullets – and everyone was trying to get out,” says Mahmoud Dawood, a farmer who was caught up in the violence. Soldiers bound him and turned his house into a firing point, he continued, uncuffing him long enough to fill sandbags.
To the north, a US Army brigade – about 3,500 soldiers – had already swept into Zhari and Arghandab, rural districts that also served as staging grounds for militant attacks on Kandahar City.
All these maneuvers are part of an operation intended to scatter the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and provide breathing space for the West to better manage its exit strategy in 2011. The operation, called “Hamkari” (the Dari word for “togetherness”), is seen as the coalition’s best chance to win control of Kandahar from the Taliban. Similar operations touted as more successful than previous efforts are ongoing in the Arghandab and Zhari districts, and in Malajat, a suburb of Kandahar City.
Why is Kandahar so important?
Kandahar has more political and cultural significance than perhaps anywhere else in the country. For centuries, Afghanistan’s rulers have hailed from this patchwork of dense greenery and barren desert. It is home to the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the country’s holiest sites. It’s also one of the nation’s most densely populated cities.
Kandahar was the de facto capital when the Taliban were in power, and is the insurgents’ most cherished objective.
Anarchy and warlordism here quickly pushed inhabitants toward the Taliban when the movement emerged 16 years ago. Following 2001, marginalization of the villagers in Panjwaii, Zhari, and Arghandab districts by the ruling Zirak Durrani tribes fed the movement with recruits and leaders and contributed to the violence and lawlessness here that have undermined NATO efforts.
As US Army Brig. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges – until recently NATO’s director of operations in southern Afghanistan – put it: “Kandahar City and its environs are the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity for the Pashtun belt” – the swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Pashtun ethnic group, the one most closely affiliated with the insurgency, resides. That’s a main part of the reason NATO commanders consider the province the linchpin to winning over the country’s “hearts and minds” and ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The trick of the Taliban
Hamkari is one of the few operations where the coalition has the benefit of the full weight ofPresident Obama‘s troop surge, which saw America deploy 30,000 extra personnel to Afghanistan – there are some 6,900 NATO troops and 5,300 Afghan troops inside Kandahar. The US and NATO have more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. In Hodges’s words, the coalition will “never have it any better.” Yet for those troops in the Horn, the hard part has only just begun. As in nearly every place NATO has rolled into in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban retaliation in the shape of a brutal intimidation campaign is a near certainty.
“The trick of the Taliban,” a villager from the Horn says, is this: “They flee the fighting. Then slowly, slowly they return.” Asking not to be named for fear of reprisal, he added that everyone, “everywhere” was “scared [of] targeted killing.”
The one thing that is certain in the murky, indefinite war that has now enveloped the Horn, is a Taliban campaign that eschews military confrontation and terrorizes civilians, say inhabitants, tribal elders, local journalists, researchers, government officials, and NATO troops.
The point of such terrorizing? To show that NATO and the Afghan government may prevail on the battlefield, but they cannot provide the security, governance, and justice that would underpin the state’s political legitimacy, observers say.
Improving governance remains a NATO objective, but faced with little alternative to working with existing administration of one of the world’s most corrupt nations, officials are now downplaying this component of the campaign.
The hardest part: establishing security
Defeating the Taliban militarily is one thing. But success in southern Afghanistan, and thus the rest of the country, will depend far more on the coalition’s ability to protect Kandaharis from Taliban threats and terror tactics – and transforming the government into something worth supporting.
Taliban “kill elders, the officials, the doctors, the engineers,” says Abdul Haq, an Achekzai tribal elder who lives in the Horn. “This will put pressure on the people. Last year they killed many people in Panjwaii district, and the government couldn’t stop this killing.”
Rubbing his cropped gray hair and speaking softly, Mr. Haq recalled the murder of a teenage boy who had joined the police. The Taliban “had spies within the government who [sold him out], and after questioning him and hearing out his story, they killed him” in the mulberry grove where he had gone to pick fruit. “It was the third time they had arrested him. He was 17.”
Even in Kandahar City, which is nominally under government control, Taliban assassinations of authority figures have proven extremely effective. Kandahar’s deputy mayor was gunned down earlier this year, and his successor met the same fate. A senior warden at Kandahar jail was killed in a drive-by shooting on Nov. 6. The deputy head of the provincial adult literacy department was shot two days before.
Although exact figures are hard to come by, local media have reported more than 600 local government vacancies following a string of murders. The fact that empty posts outnumber assassinated officials is evidence that the fear campaign is working.
How to keep ‘ghosts’ away
As troops prepared for their final air assault on the Horn last month, US Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, one of the most senior NATO officers in Afghanistan, quizzed Afghan commanders at a vantage point overlooking the Horn on how they planned to stop the insurgents – known locally as “ghosts”– from sneaking back into the Horn and terrorizing inhabitants.
“These operations you’ve been doing are going very well … the challenge is, after that, how do we continue to provide security for the people?” he asked. No one answered.
“What we need [to] do with every asset we have out there,” he continued, “is figure out how to make it bigger than it is, so that the people say, ‘OK, we’ll be protected.'”
Creating that sense of security has largely proved elusive for the Afghan and NATO security forces. In Marjah, in neighboring Helmand Province, a US Special Forces captain said that persuading people whose chief motivation is survival to stick their necks out was – not surprisingly – difficult.
“The Taliban are quick to take out tribal leaders,” said Captain Matt, whose full name can’t be disclosed under NATO press rules.
In one of the most notable examples of the Taliban targeting tribal strongmen, Abdul Hakim Jan, a powerful figure from Arghandab district (Kandahar City’s northern gateway) was one of 80 spectators killed when a massive car bomb detonated at a dog fight two years ago. His murder, which came soon after the death of Mullah Naqib, another Kandahar politician and elder from of the Alokozai tribe, signaled the fall of Arghandab to the Taliban.
Captain Matt said the same phenomenon was visible in Marjah. “This place has largely been stripped of its leadership…. We try to tell people that if you want yourselves to be represented then you need to do x, y, and z. We try to emphasize that, hey, it’s your leaders,” he said. “We want to emphasize that, not impose it.”
But progress is slow, with potential leaders choosing to remain in the shadows. “A man with a gun rules 100,” Matt says. “The coalition doesn’t rule by fear – [and] a carrot doesn’t do so much.”
Tribal wars even more fierce
The Taliban have also been quick to exploit tribal enmities. When NATO and Afghan forces swept into the Horn in 2006, in one of three previous campaigns to rid the place of insurgents, the arrival of Afghan Border Police from a traditional rival of the predominant Noorzai tribe sparked such fierce fighting that it made the struggle between pro- and antigovernment forces look tame. By backing the Noorzais, the Taliban bought themselves an entire tribal block.
Local history is also a factor, especially in the Horn, which has traditionally supported a lot of illegal activity. Criminal networks existed here long before the coup in 1973, the communist countercoup in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979. Government writ didn’t really extend this far, and so the militants filled the vacuum.
Residents of Zangabad, a bucolic slice of orchards and irrigation ditches that Afghan troops stormed on Oct. 16, claim there was a Taliban court there, dispensing swift if brutal justice, and reportedly in direct competition with Kandahar City courts, which are perceived as sluggish, expensive, and corrupt.
Most locals dislike either option
Yet a major factor in the outcome of Kandahar, say top commanders, is the Afghan government’s ability to deliver. That’s the Achilles heel of NATO efforts to stabilize the country.
Although villagers who have lived under the Taliban’s austere sway have little love for the insurgents, they are not altogether convinced by the other side’s offer. Tales of police arranging for kidnappings, private militias snatching land, and government officials extorting civilians are commonplace in Kandahar.
“One man says he likes the Taliban,” explains Haji Abdul Karim, an elder from the Noorzai tribe and an old acquaintance of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. “One man says he likes the government. But the majority hate both.”
In contrast to earlier NATO promises to sideline “malign actors” (also known as the Kandahar mafia), military commanders in southern Afghanistan are taking a new approach and have now quietly dropped their opposition to the region’s power brokers, and instead have reconciled themselves to working with them.
The alienation factor this tactic creates is undeniable: “There are many warlords in the government working to acquire money, not bring security,” says Haji Mohammad Zahir, a businessman from the Zhari district. People join the insurgents “because of the government’s corruption, bribes, and extortion,” he says.
Still, the security in Kandahar is a big step toward allowing locals to even consider such issues Hodges says: “There is a presence of security that is a lot more prevalent and reassuring than at any time in the past.”
Nato and Afghan forces, which this week seized the last Taliban safe haven directly threatening Kandahar City, are drawing up plans to stop insurgents re-infiltrating the area and waging a campaign of intimidation against local inhabitants.
Earlier this week forces stormed the last cluster of villages under insurgent control in the nearby “Horn of Panjwaii” during a night-time helicopter raid. A Nato spokesman said resistance had been “light” but that troops were still clearing the area of home-made bombs.
The assault on Taloqan, a cluster of villages in the middle of the Horn, where inhabitants have typically leant towards the insurgents, is the culmination of months of fighting on the western fringes of the city. Read the rest of this entry »
As troops step up their attack on the militants’ Kandahar heartland, Julius Cavendish meets the ordinary people caught on the frontline
The first eyewitness accounts of Nato’s assault on the final Taliban sanctuary threatening Kandahar City have begun to emerge, painting a picture of sporadic fire fights, steady progress by Afghan and coalition forces, and flight by those inhabitants wealthy or lucky enough to escape the violence.
Earlier this week, Nato began its final and critical phase of a major offensive designed to clear Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, with hundreds of troops carrying out an air assault on the main insurgent base in the region. In interviews with The Independent, tribal elders, government officials and civilians in Kandahar City provided vivid descriptions of special forces night raids and Nato’s bombardment of the area in the preceding month – designed to damage the local Taliban leadership – and the tactics the insurgents used to cow inhabitants before fleeing in the face of coalition firepower.
Mahmoud Dawood, a 35-year-old farmer from the western tip of the Horn of Panjwaii, the area Afghan and Nato forces are trying to take, described how he was woken last Thursday night by explosions in a neighbouring village. Suddenly the blasts came closer, and the silhouette of an Afghan commando appeared in his open door. “There was a bright white light and a voice said in Pashto ‘Stand up’,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »
Spring brings renewed risk from IEDs, and political solutions seem a long way off. Julius Cavendish reports from Pashmul
Under a baby-blue sky Sgt Michael Ingram was bleeding his life into the Afghan dirt. Explosives hidden in a mud house had taken off both his legs, and as the call went out for a medic, it took a moment to realise that the medic was also hurt, along with a third US soldier who had taken shrapnel in his shoulder.
One of the most popular men in Charlie Company, First Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Sgt Ingram died from massive blood loss. “There is no way to comprehend an IED (improvised explosive device) until you see someone hit one,” Lt Mark Morrison, a platoon leader in the same company, said later. “Then everything changes.”
In the half-deserted village of Pashmul – as much a front line as any in southern Afghanistan’s indefinite war of ambush and IED – Taliban fighters are stepping up the fight. With fighters arriving from Helmand and Pakistan, and budding vegetation providing ample cover, the Taliban are using bolder tactics in an attempt to suck foreign forces into a battle of attrition. “The Taliban want to pull us into the grape fields,” Charlie Company’s commander, Capt Duke Reim, said. “Slowly take a company from 130 [men] and bring it down to 115. That’s what they’re looking to do, because the more we focus here on the grape fields the less we focus on Kandahar [City],” – which, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, is the prize in Nato’s population-centric campaign. Read the rest of this entry »
The faded prettiness of its old town used to belie the fact that Kandahar was a city gripped by fear. Unlike Kabul, the rising tide of violence was less frequently used as an excuse to smother the colonnades and tree-lined boulevards in reinforced concrete. That has changed now. Suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in February, leaving 35 dead and over 50 wounded. A Canadian photographer in the city on the night of that attack said that people were “genuinely scared. These men hear explosions every third or fourth day and they were shaken. The fear was really palpable that all hell was breaking loose and nothing was going to stop it.”
As a result, roads are now shut and the drab march of blast barriers has begun. It is just one sign that things are getting worse. Foreigners cannot walk down the street or stop in the bazaar to gauge the local climate. Meetings invariably take place in private rooms deep inside fortified compounds. Yet for some reason, Kandaharis continue to risk talking to journalists in the knowledge that what they say might get them killed.
“Yes, I’m scared,” Haji Mohammad Zahir, a villager who moved to Kandahar to work in construction, told The Independent. “When I was coming in I was scared because the insurgents are watching. Maybe some of them looked at me, and will call tonight asking why I am meeting with foreigners.” Read the rest of this entry »
Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN
Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.
Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.
This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.
It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.
Kabul takes interest
Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.
The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.
Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.
Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.
“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”
Mapping out a new Marjah
In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”
Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.
A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.
Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.
“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.
Rooting out opium
Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.
Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.
He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”
Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.
In the Afghanistan war, NATO forces chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for 27 Afghan civilian deaths in a US airstrike. The coalition has begun saying ‘sorry’ more quickly to civilian deaths, as part of a new hearts and minds strategy.
Another botched airstrike, another apology.
In a video distributed Tuesday in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, the top NATOcommander here Gen. Stanley McChrystal said he was sorry to the nation for 27 civilian deaths, after US special forces killed a convoy of Afghan civilians they had mistaken for insurgents. It was the coalition’s deadliest mistake in six months.
While public apologies by NATO have become almost commonplace – this was just one of half a dozen in the past 10 days, and the second by McChrystal himself – the push to admit mistakes and say sorry is unprecedented in NATO’s nine-year intervention in Afghanistan. It fits into McChyrstal’s new strategy that prioritizes winning over the population.
“I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again,” he said. “I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
For years, stonewalling
For years, foreign forces here were grudging in their apologies, trying to spin big mistakes into smaller mistakes and refusing to comment on civilian casualties until torturously slow and opaque inquiries ended. If any blame was admitted, it was usually too long after the event to sound sincere. The Taliban exploited NATO’s lack of information, seizing on reports of civilian deaths with its own propaganda machine to turn Afghans against the foreign forces.
But NATO has shifted on the communications front. In the past 10 days alone, it has admitted that airstrikes in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces last week killed five civilians and a handful of Afghan policemen, and that a rocket strike in the Marjah offensive in Helmand Province left at least nine bystanders dead. Troops there have also shot and killed civilians they have mistaken for suicide bombers. Each time an explanation has been forthcoming.
Afghans are circumspect about the change in tone. “Does this apology mean there won’t be any other civilian casualties in future?” says Abdul Jabar, a carpenter from the eastern province of Wardak. “If it does then I appreciate it.”
Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul, is less receptive. “I want to ask McChrystal if he had lost his family in such an incident,” he says. “And if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”
Officials claim that NATO’s improved ability to communicate in Afghanistan can be attributed to McChrystal himself, who has shaken up the command structure and spun off a new public affairs office fielding queries 24 hours a day.
“It’s a good place to be right now. It’s very exciting and I think the excitement is contagious,” says Col. Wayne Shanks, a NATO public affairs officer based in Kabul. “I owe most of it to General McChrystal because he refocuses us and reenergizes us each day.”
More than words
But independent observers say the difference is attributable not just to the reorganization but also to a change in approach. The circumstances in which coalition forces are allowed to call in an airstrike have become more limited. For example, they must wait 72 hours to establish a “pattern of life” before bombing a house where insurgents have taken refuge.
Although the total number of civilian casualties rose in 2009 to 2,412, NATO troops were responsible for ‘only’ 25 percent of them, down from 39 percent the year before.
“The distinction that McChrystal has brought to the table is that there is a focus on communications but there is another level beyond that, where they are willing to make some changes in policy that reflect community concerns,” says Erica Gaston, a human rights advocate in Kabul for Open Society Institute. “I think that’s the main reason he’s been more effective in strategic communications.”
“With [Gen. David] McKiernan [McChrystal’s predecessor] there was also a certain public relations sensitivity to issues like civilian casualties, but you didn’t really see changes of policy,” she says.
“McChrystal is not only willing to go to the site afterward and make apologies but also to follow that up by making changes to tactical restrictions to prevent similar incidents from occurring.”