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U.S. forces set sights on Taliban bastion of Kandahar

By Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A01

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. forces have begun the initial phases of a political-military offensive in this Taliban bastion and hope to control the city and surrounding areas by late summer, according to senior U.S. military officials.

Officials have pressed local leaders and tribal elders over the past several weeks to begin holding shuras, or conferences, in Kandahar city and outlying districts, telling them that they must improve governance, address corruption and eject the Taliban. Otherwise, their areas will be the focus of expanding military operations scheduled to begin in June with the arrival of 10,000 new U.S. troops, the officials have said.

Among those specifically warned by U.S. military commanders is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the elected head of Kandahar's provincial council. American officials have for years accused Karzai, the unquestioned power broker in the province and brother of President Hamid Karzai, of administering a corrupt regime and protecting narcotics traffickers. He was also accused of orchestrating voter fraud in August's presidential election.

On a visit here Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Kandahar the "center of gravity" for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and compared the importance of the offensive to the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops that helped turn the tide in the Iraq war.

In interviews, senior U.S. military and civilian officials stressed the difference between the operations in Kandahar, an urban area that is the Taliban's heartland, and operations in neighboring Helmand province, where Marines have taken control of the Marja district and installed government officials appointed by the central government in Kabul.

"Marja is rural and was ungoverned," said Frank Ruggiero, the senior U.S. civilian official in southern Afghanistan. "Kandahar city is controlled by the Afghan government." But 80 percent of the Zhari district to the west is controlled by the Taliban, as is 40 percent of the Panjwayi district, to the southwest. There are scattered insurgent operations in the Arghandab district to the northwest, Ruggiero and other officials said.

Together, the three districts and the city proper have a population of 2 million, making Kandahar Afghanistan's second-largest population center, after Kabul.

U.S. officials, including President Obama during a surprise visit last weekend, have pressed the Afghan president to take long-promised action against his brother and other allegedly corrupt officials. But they acknowledge that their limited knowledge of tribal politics here, the power wielded by Ahmed Wali Karzai and a few others and President Karzai's reluctance to act have made it an uphill battle.

Senior administration officials in Washington said overall transition to stability and vastly improved governance in Kandahar must be completed by December, when Obama has asked Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, for an overall review of how the new strategy he announced last fall is faring. The strategy calls for U.S. military withdrawals to begin in July 2011.

"We really don't have much time," said a senior military official on McChrystal's staff of the Kandahar operation.

The political side of the offensive began in earnest last week with a shura in Arghandab organized by the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa. When an unrepresentative group of tribal leaders showed up, Ruggiero said, Wesa sent them home with instructions to widen the net of participation. Similar meetings are scheduled throughout the region over the next several weeks.

U.S. officials have urged President Karzai to travel here next month for a provincial shura. The pitch they have made to him, one official said, is "Mr. President, we've got to get going on Kandahar, and we need your help."

As they constructed the operational timeline for the Kandahar offensive, officials said, they undertook a "deep dive" into the collected intelligence on the area and concluded that "it's amazing what we don't know," a senior military official said. "Our knowledge of the enemy is pretty darn good." But the key to success, he said, "is understanding the tribal nature of what's going on in Kandahar, and we're not there yet."

Ahmed Wali Karzai "presents a huge challenge for us, that's for sure," another senior military official said. Added a Western diplomat in Kabul: "Is it a campaign to liberate Kandahar city from the Taliban or to liberate it from Wali Karzai? The two come together."

One senior U.S. military official described a personal visit he said he made two weeks ago to Karzai in Kandahar to threaten him with arrest or worse. "I told him, 'I'm going to be watching every step you take. If I catch you meeting an insurgent, I'm going to put you on the JPEL,' " the Joint Prioritized Engagement List, reserved for the most wanted insurgents. "That means," the official said he told Karzai, "that I can capture or kill you."

But this official and others acknowledged that they have no real evidence to back up allegations that Karzai has contacts with insurgents and that the threat is largely an empty one.

"We'd rather not have him," the military official said, "but there's nothing we can do unless we can link him to the insurgency." As an elected official, Karzai cannot simply be removed from office, and officials said the only option is to persuade his brother to ease him out of office by sending him to an overseas embassy, something the president has thus far refused to do. He has said that he has repeatedly demanded U.S. officials provide him with proof of specific wrongdoing by his brother, but that none has been forthcoming.

Ahmed Wali Karzai has proved to be a deft political operator, both within Afghanistan's complicated tribal networks and inside the U.S. government.

While he has earned the ire of U.S. military officials and diplomats, he has reportedly cultivated a longtime relationship with the CIA. The New York Times reported last fall that he had received regular payments from the CIA for several years and helped recruit a Kandahar-based militia that works on behalf of the U.S. spy agency.

"No intelligence organization discusses publicly who it may or may not deal with overseas," CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said Tuesday. "But if anyone thinks this agency is supporting drug dealers, they're wrong."

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that allegations of Ahmed Wali Karzai's ties to narcotics traffickers had never been proved. "He's a key tribal leader," the official said. "If you take out Karzai, you don't have good governance, you have no governance. He's done very good things for the United States. He's effective."

Karzai has also consistently denied allegations of corruption and wrongdoing. He did not return phone calls and text messages seeking comments for this report. Other senior officials in Kandahar also have refused to take a stand against him, either from conviction or fear.

"He's the guy who will keep Kandahar stable," Wesa, the governor, said Tuesday after holding a shura of tribal leaders with Mullen. "If he's not here on the scene," Wesa said of Karzai, "you don't want to see what's going to happen."

For now, the strategy is to try to reduce the influence of Karzai and other power brokers by increasing that of other tribal and political leaders and providing them with the economic and good-governance tools to succeed.

The military aspects of the operation began about two months ago with targeted operations leading to the detention of about 70 mid- and senior-level Taliban leaders, with a slightly smaller number killed, according to U.S. officials. The next stage, an official said, will involve a "body blow" to areas under Taliban control, with the arrival of two U.S. combat brigades and Special Forces contingents that will move quickly to take control of the main highway into the city, through Zhari, to the west.

The bulk of U.S. troops will remain outside the city, while a trained and uncorrupt police force -- yet nonexistent -- will be installed inside Kandahar city.

"We have about four months," a military official said. "In that time, we have to flow our forces in and stay on that timeline." If U.S. and Afghan officials have retained and expanded security control in Helmand, while "moving toward a solution in Kandahar that the people support . . . then we've got the momentum," the official said.

The timeline also has larger goals, including a new police training structure and increased recruitment, as well as continued growth in the strength and competence of the Afghan army.

By fall, an additional 5,000 U.S. troops will be deployed to eastern and northern Afghanistan, for a total of 98,000 in the country, with about 40,000 from international partners. At the same time, the four-region command structure under McChrystal, with a U.S. command in the east, British in the south, Italian in the west and German in the north, is to be grown to five regions.

Helmand and the rest of the southwest will be broken off to form a new U.S. command with the Marines and British troops. The British commander in the south, scheduled to depart in November, will be replaced by a U.S. general, leaving the United States in command of three of the five regions.

Whitlock reported from Washington. Correspondent Keith Richburg and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul and staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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