Still, U.S. military commanders were encouraged by an overall decline in violence in Kandahar over the summer fighting season. With President Obama having ordered the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of December — and an additional 20,000 by next fall — some combat troops must leave the south, where the bulk of American forces are located, commanders said.
U.S. military officials did not want to reveal the size or timing of their shift out of the city, but they did not dispute that a smaller urban footprint was coming. Their goal is to replicate the situation in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where coalition troops have a low-visibility presence and serve as advisers to Afghan soldiers and police.
“We will begin to thin out and turn over security of Kandahar to the Afghan security forces, in a similar fashion as we did Kabul,” said Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the second-ranking commander in Afghanistan.
Some Afghans welcome the prospect of fewer convoys of giant American armored vehicles that clog downtown roads and add to the impression of an occupied city. But others wonder whether the Afghan security forces, particularly the police, can handle the Taliban on their own.
“We are worried about this, 100 percent. Not only the military, but the locals and the tribal elders are also concerned,” said Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, commander of the Kandahar Air Wing and the brother of a powerful provincial governor. “The city right now is under the control of the Americans. . . .
Without them the Taliban activity will increase, there will be more attacks and more instability in the city.”
Early in his tenure, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker visited Kandahar’s governor, Toryalai Wesa, to reassure him that “this was not a shut-the-lights-off-we’re out-of-here” situation, said a U.S. military official in Kandahar.
“Certainly, the governor was apprehensive,” the military official said of the August visit. “There is going to be a reduction [in troops], no question.”
The top prize
From the beginning of Obama’s troop buildup, Kandahar was the top prize. The dusty, sun-baked city spawned the Taliban movement in the 1990s, and the surrounding farmlands remain violently contested, with insurgents having converted large swaths into minefields. “As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan,” the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said last summer.