By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; A01
The Obama administration's campaign to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan's second-largest city is a go-for-broke move that even its authors are unsure will succeed.
The bet is that the Kandahar operation, backed by thousands of U.S. troops and billions of dollars, will break the mystique and morale of the insurgents, turn the tide of the war and validate the administration's Afghanistan strategy.
There is no Plan B.
The deadline for results is short: Administration officials anticipate that the operation will form the centerpiece of a major strategy assessment due in December and will justify the first withdrawals of U.S. troops from elsewhere in Afghanistan in July 2011. Although operations initiated last winter in southwestern Helmand province will continue, and new troop deployments are scheduled this year for northern and eastern Afghanistan, little else will matter if the news from Kandahar is not good.
The urgency and the difficulty of the task were illustrated Saturday when the Taliban launched an unprecedented rocket and ground attack against the Kandahar air field, NATO's largest installation in southern Afghanistan and the headquarters of the upcoming offensive. Several coalition troops and civilian employees were wounded when rockets sailed over perimeter fortifications, but gunmen who tried to fire their way inside through a gate were unsuccessful, the U.S. military said.
Officials have described the offensive's blend of civilian and military operations as the first true test of the counterinsurgency doctrine adopted five years ago on the eve of the 2007 surge in Iraq, but since only imperfectly applied. As troops battle insurgent forces entrenched among the population on the outskirts of the city, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, U.S.-mentored Afghan police will establish a presence in the relatively secure center.
There will be no "tanks rolling into the city," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said May 13, adding that care will be taken so that the effort "doesn't destroy Kandahar in the effort to save Kandahar."A delicate balance
"Shaping" operations for the offensive began late last winter as Special Operations forces began killing or capturing insurgent leaders. The Taliban has also begun an assassination campaign against people working for foreigners or the Afghan government.
U.S. civilian officials are simultaneously trying to wrest control from local power brokers and to correct imbalances that favor one tribal group. They plan to set up 10 administrative districts, each with a representative council and money to spend.
Success has been only vaguely defined, and progress will be monitored through what the military calls "atmospherics reporting," including public opinion polls and levels of commerce in the streets. A senior military official said the central question, which the administration will pose and answer for itself, is: "Are we moving toward a solution in Kandahar that the people support?"
Public descriptions of the balance between the offensive's military and civilian aspects have fluctuated in response to Afghan sensibilities in a region that is arguably more hostile to foreign intervention and the government in Kabul than to the Taliban.
Senior U.S. military officials briefing American reporters in Kabul early last month described extensive "clearing operations" planned in the outlying Kandahar districts of Zhari, Argandab and Panjwai, where the Taliban is entrenched.
But Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week that military force would be used only "if and when and where needed . . . in consultation with the community." Although the administration has pledged to consult with Karzai every step of the way, and Karzai with Kandaharis, it remains unclear whether consultation equals a veto.
"It's not a military operation in the normal sense of the word," an administration official said. "Maybe they just should have done it," and not talked about it first, "but you couldn't . . . bring so many troops in" without an explanation, he said, referring to the 10,000 additional U.S. troops that have begun to flow into the Kandahar area.
The name of the offensive -- Hamkari Baraye Kandahar, or Cooperation for Kandahar -- was carefully chosen to avoid the word "operation," which suggests violence. The administration official described it benignly as a "military presence" and Karzai has defined it as a "process." Last week, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called the offensive "a unique challenge."
"I actually think the U.S. military would love to find an enemy that was dug in on a piece of terrain, that we could establish a D-Day and we could attack with no civilians around," McChrystal said, "because that would play to every strength that the coalition has."
Instead, the Kandahar operation might highlight areas of traditional U.S. and Afghan government weakness. Avoiding the civilian casualties that have plagued U.S. operations elsewhere will be particularly difficult in and around Kandahar, an urban and farming area of 2 million people.
The offensive requires Afghan police to demonstrate, arguably for the first time, competence and integrity. It assumes that Americans, both military and civilian, can sort through complex tribal politics to ensure that power and funding go to the right people, and that Kandahar's chieftains will relinquish some control and support U.S. aims.
The perils underlying all these assumptions, and the pitfalls of getting it wrong, were outlined in an 80-page, unclassified analysis prepared this spring by McChrystal's command as a sociological primer on Kandahar.
"Of all the districts and cities in Afghanistan," the March 30 analysis said, "none is more important to the future of the Afghan government or the Taliban insurgency than Kandahar City."'Significant risks'
Despite initial indications that the Taliban would not challenge the U.S. troop buildup and would lie low until the withdrawal begins, the analysis said, "There are signs the Taliban leadership believes it cannot afford to remain idle as a surge of foreign troops and the largest influx of development aid in modern Afghan history are focused on establishing governance in the Taliban's birthplace and former capital."
Military and civilian momentum in Kandahar, it concluded, "will probably compel the Taliban to make a political compromise with the Afghan government or to wage a climactic campaign of violence in Kandahar City (or perhaps even both)."
Statistics in the analysis are grim. Of 784 uniformed police in Kandahar city and the surrounding area, only 25 percent to 30 percent have been trained, although new forces are scheduled to arrive for the offensive. Of 87 slots for local judges, nine are filled. Saraposa prison, the main detention facility in Kandahar, is overpopulated and is considered less than secure, and the offensive is expected to produce "far more" prisoners than it can handle.
Among the "significant risks" the strategy poses, the analysis said, huge U.S. expenditures in Kandahar -- including 80 percent of U.S. Agency for International Development resources designated for Afghanistan this year -- could "undermine, rather than create, stability." Citing the "unsettling" results of research being conducted at Tufts University, it noted that little link has been established between aid and stability, and that most Afghans think more aid would simply contribute to the corruption seen as the primary fuel for insurgency.
The strategy envisions quickly "wrap[ping] Kandahar City in a circle of assistance and development projects," some of them up and running by June 1, "followed by an influx of new projects in the city itself," the analysis said. But, it said, "There is a risk that ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] will exacerbate the popular perception that powerbrokers are the only real beneficiaries."
Finding Afghans to run new development projects, it said, is problematic: "An ironic side-effect of the U.S. civilian surge in Kandahar is that, because we have hired many of the best educated and motivated Afghans to support us, fewer talented Afghans are available to work for the Afghan government itself in Kandahar City."
The influence of Kandahar's chief power brokers, presidential brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and former governor Gul Agha Sherzai, far exceeds the portion of the region's tribal makeup they represent, yet their competition is the dominant fact of political life there. Early this year, the two separately approached the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, the U.S. civilian headquarters, "to promote themselves as the preferred figure to bring the Taliban to the table to strike peace deals," the analysis said.
Rather than directly challenge them, U.S. planners will try to boost more representative alternatives appointed to district councils. That, too, presents a significant risk of failure, the analysis said. "The problem is that the Afghan central government . . . wants to nominate the district positions and staff from Kabul," the report said.
"Experience suggests this will not work," it said.