Obama's War: A City Quietly Falls

Reemergence of Taliban in Kandahar Presents Challenges for U.S., NATO

Vehicle explosions in Kandahar on Aug. 26 killed 41 civilians. "We simply do not have enough resources to address the challenges there," a U.S. official said.
Vehicle explosions in Kandahar on Aug. 26 killed 41 civilians. "We simply do not have enough resources to address the challenges there," a U.S. official said. (By Allauddin Khan -- Associated Press)
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 14, 2009

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The letter, neatly folded and placed under the front door, was addressed to Nisar Ahmad's father, a gray-bearded schoolteacher who could not have been prouder that his son had graduated from Kandahar University and had secured a well-paying job as a field assistant here for the U.N. Development Program.

This is the last warning. Keep your son away from this work. . . .

We know your son is working for infidels. If something happens to him, do not complain.

Two hours later, after he and his father discussed their options and concluded that they had no faith in the local police to protect them, Ahmad called the United Nations and resigned.

That private moment of fear handed yet another small victory to the Taliban in its campaign to reclaim Kandahar, the religious extremist movement's spiritual home and a key battleground for control of Afghanistan nearly eight years after the U.S.-led military campaign began.

The slow and quiet fall of Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, poses a complex new challenge for the NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan. It is factoring prominently into discussions between Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the overall U.S. and NATO commander, and his advisers about how many more troops to seek from Washington.

"Kandahar is at the top of the list," one senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan said. "We simply do not have enough resources to address the challenges there."

Kandahar in many ways is a microcosm of the challenges the United States faces in stabilizing Afghanistan. The city is filled with ineffective government officials and police officers whom the governor calls looters and kidnappers. Unemployment is rampant. Municipal services are nonexistent. Reconstruction projects have not changed many lives. A lack of NATO forces allowed militants free rein.

But it is also unique. It is bigger and more complicated than any other place in southern Afghanistan -- and there is a growing belief among military commanders that it is more important to the overall counterinsurgency campaign than any other part of the country.

"Kandahar means Afghanistan," said the governor, Tooryalai Wesa. "The history of Afghanistan, the politics of Afghanistan, was always determined from Kandahar, and once again, it will be determined from Kandahar."

Increasing the Troop Level

For years, NATO's strategy had been to entrust corrupt and incompetent local police with principal responsibility for securing the dusty collection of neighborhoods here that are home to an estimated 800,000 people. But several senior officers and strategists now think that this approach no longer makes sense and that more troops are necessary to prevent the Taliban from further reclaiming the pivotal city.

McChrystal will probably present the Pentagon with a range of options in the next week or two that will outline the hoped-for gains if additional troops are deployed, according to people familiar with the discussions. The ultimate decision rests with President Obama, who must determine whether McChrystal's plan to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency effort across the country, one that aims to arrest the loss of places such as Kandahar to the Taliban, merits sending more U.S. forces.

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