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In Kandahar, a Taliban on the Rise
U.S., NATO Struggle to Check Insurgents in Key Afghan Area

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.

Just how many forces are needed in this city, and what they would do, has become a matter of debate at the highest levels of the NATO military command in Kabul. There is near unanimity that more Afghan soldiers are needed in Kandahar. But there are no spare units to be deployed, and with violence increasing in the country's previously stable north and west, commanders are reluctant to pull troops from those areas.

As a consequence, some officers maintain that NATO forces need to move into parts of the city. Other military officials in Afghanistan, including top leaders of the regional headquarters that encompasses Kandahar, contend that sending more foreign troops into the city would only pull in more Taliban fighters from rural areas, drawing NATO forces into perilous urban combat. But even they acknowledge there is a need for more Special Forces soldiers and military police who can mentor the local police force, as well as possibly more NATO troops on the city's outskirts.

Residents say the level of Taliban activity in Kandahar can be deceiving to outsiders because the fighters' tactics are different here. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks are not the most commonly used weapons, largely because of the relative lack of foreign troops. Instead, it is paper and ink -- and the assassin's bullet when the recipient of a warning letter does not comply.

Taliban fighters have opted not to drive around in their trademark white pickup trucks, clad in black turbans. For now, they operate under the cover of darkness, prosecuting their intimidation campaign with correspondence and traffic checkpoints aimed at making it clear to residents that they are everywhere. Some NATO officials think the insurgents are trying to so weaken the government, security forces and relief agencies that they can one day assert full control over a city they are already dominating.

"Nobody in this city feels safe," said Ahmad, who now spends his days at home. "The Taliban do not show their faces during the day, but everyone knows they are in charge."

The Taliban Reemerges

To the U.S. government, and to many people here, the last Taliban holdouts in Kandahar appeared defeated by December 2001. Some fled across the desert to Pakistan. Others melted into the local population.

After a few months of intensive Special Forces operations to apprehend al-Qaeda members, the U.S. military largely ignored Kandahar. Afghan President Hamid Karzai soon installed an iron-fisted tribal ally as governor. Convinced that he would maintain order, the United States scaled back troop levels.

By 2005, as Taliban attacks were increasing in eastern Afghanistan, the United States ceded responsibility for security in Kandahar province to Canada, which sent about 2,500 troops to the area. Although Canada has allowed its forces to operate without some rules that have limited the activities of other NATO members, Canadian commanders acknowledge that they did not have enough soldiers on the ground while Taliban activity increased over the past three years.

When Canadian troops conducted repeated missions to clear militants from areas around the city, there never were enough forces to stay to keep insurgents from returning. Canada did not have the resources to maintain a large presence in the city: That was left to the local police.

Mistrusting the Police

It is the corruption of the police -- and that alleged of senior government officials -- that many Kandaharis say has been the principal reason for the Taliban's resurgence. Just as they did in the 1990s, residents say the Taliban is appealing not to a popular desire for religious fanaticism but to a demand for good governance. Part of the problem is that the police are ill-trained and ill-paid, driving them to graft. Another contributor: local leaders who have created a culture of impunity.

Chief among them, several Afghans contend, is the chairman of the Kandahar province council, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's younger brother. He is alleged to have links to the opium trade -- a charge he has denied -- and is accused of other misdeeds, including engaging in ballot-box fraud in support of his brother in the Aug. 20 presidential election.

Several U.S. lawmakers, including Vice President Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have urged the president to dismiss his brother from the council. But U.S. and Canadian diplomats have not pressed the matter, in part because Ahmed Wali Karzai has given valuable intelligence to the U.S. military, and he also routinely provides assistance to Canadian forces, according to several officials familiar with the issue.

At 10 p.m. on a recent evening, two dozen Canadian soldiers rumbled out of their base on the city's eastern fringe in a convoy of armored vehicles. Their mission was the same as it is most days: Head to the police headquarters, link up with a squad of municipal policemen and go on patrol. The goal is to get the police out of their stations and into the community, to convince Kandaharis that somebody is protecting them.

Only five bothered to report for duty. In one green pickup truck.

When the Canadians stopped to talk to a man guarding a row of closed market stalls in one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, the policemen stayed in their truck.

"It's better when you are with the police," the guard, Agha Mohammed, told the Canadians. "If you are not here, the only time we see them is when they want bribes."

Earlier that day, Agha said, the police were at the market. They helped themselves to enough watermelons to fill the back of their pickup, he said.

Are there Taliban around here? one Canadian asked.

"They're here all the time," Agha said. "Sometimes they set up checkpoints at night."

But, he said, "they never ask us for money."

Fixing Kandahar

Shortly after he took over as the overall U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal asked his subordinates why more than half of the 21,000 troops deployed this spring were sent to neighboring Helmand province instead of Kandahar. The implication was clear, according to a person familiar with the discussion: Kandahar requires more forces.

By then, however, it was too late to move the Marines from Helmand. For now, NATO will have to try to fix Kandahar -- not just the city but the entire province, which is the country's second-largest in land area -- with the Canadians and five U.S. Army battalions, four of which are part of the new forces sent by Obama. The overall troop deployment is far less than what NATO has in Helmand, which has fewer residents.

That has forced commanders to address the Kandahar problem indirectly. Instead of sending troops into the city, the military's initial approach is to deploy most battalions in districts around Kandahar. The goal is to target insurgent redoubts in those areas and cut off infiltration routes into the city.

Those operations are just beginning. In Arghandab, a Taliban stronghold to the north, two U.S. Army infantry battalions equipped with Stryker armored vehicles have spent the past three weeks trying to flush out insurgents from villages surrounded by lush pomegranate orchards and grapevines. It is perilous work: The soldiers have encountered scores of booby traps and roadside bombs, and they have suffered more casualties in the those weeks than any other U.S. units in Afghanistan.

NATO officials regard only one of the districts around the city as reasonably stable, and that is because Canadian commanders concentrated the bulk of their forces in the area over the past six months. They also poured money into development projects, with the aim of getting residents to band against the Taliban.

The effort in Dand district has shown promising signs, in part because of what some Canadian development specialists regard as a mistake: The district chief hired his brother to administer a Canadian-funded public works project aimed at generating employment, and the brother gave most of the jobs to fellow members of his Barakzai tribe. That nepotism, however, wound up encouraging Barakzai elders in Dand to write a letter to the local Taliban commander telling him to "stay away," according to Canadian officials. Young tribesmen also have mounted informal security patrols in the area.

But what occurred in Dand may be hard to pull off elsewhere, Canadians note, because that district has fewer tribal rivalries and is relatively small, resulting in a much higher concentration of NATO troops to residents than will be possible in other places. And thus far, NATO officials have been reluctant to embrace tribal solutions to combating the insurgency out of fear that will create a new class of warlords.

Even if counterinsurgency operations in the surrounding districts are successful, some military officials at NATO headquarters in Kabul remain skeptical that the strategy will improve security inside Kandahar. They warn that the new push on the fringe will simply push militants inside the city.

"We could wind up with the exact opposite effect than we're seeking to achieve," one official said.

But, the official noted: "Unless we get more troops, we don't really have a choice. We can't go into the city with the forces we have now."

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