Kandahar offensive will take months longer than planned, U.S. says

A man comforts his injured son after a suicide attack at a wedding party in Kandahar city, killing 40.
A man comforts his injured son after a suicide attack at a wedding party in Kandahar city, killing 40. (Allauddin Khan/associated Press)
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By Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

When the Obama administration decided last fall to accept Hamid Karzai as the legitimate president of Afghanistan for the next five years, there were no illusions that working with him and his government would be easy. It has been even harder than many U.S. officials anticipated.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that the civilian-military offensive scheduled to begin in the southern city of Kandahar this spring would take months longer than planned. The Afghan government has not produced the civilian leadership and trained security forces it was to contribute to the effort, U.S. officials said, and the support from Kandaharis that the United States was counting on Karzai to deliver has not materialized.

"When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them," Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said Thursday in explaining why the Kandahar operation has been pushed back until at least September.

"It's a deliberative process. It takes time to convince people," he told reporters at a meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels.

But time is short. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this week that the U.S.-led coalition has until the end of the year to prove to the United States and its allies that their forces have broken a stalemate with the Taliban. President Obama has said he will begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011.

In Marja, in western Helmand province, where Marines launched a major operation this year, U.S. efforts have been hindered by the absence or incompetence of Afghan officials and security forces and by the Taliban's enduring resistance.

After Karzai emerged triumphant from last year's chaotic and fraud-riddled presidential election, the administration decided there was nothing to be gained from trying to marginalize him and sought to repair what had become a tattered relationship. While the two sides demonstrate improved rapport in public, however, many officials are despairing behind the scenes.

"Washington is making nice with him, but what good has that done?" a U.S. official in Afghanistan said of Karzai. "We need him to step up and take a leadership role, to get his government to support what we're doing. But he's either unwilling or unable to do it.

"If he can't be a partner, how can any of this work?" said the official who, like others interviewed about Karzai and U.S strategy, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Karzai's promises to stem corruption have yielded few results. Last week, he fired Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, two top cabinet officials whom the United States considered among the few who are competent and honest, in the culmination of long-running feuds with both. Karzai spokesmen said the two were let go because they did not prevent an attack on a reconciliation meeting in Kabul last week. But they had also strongly objected to Karzai's plans to seek reconciliation with the Taliban.

Afghan and U.S. sources cited additional issues, including their anger at Karzai's refusal to sign execution orders for convicted terrorists, as well as ethnic rivalries. Saleh is a Tajik from northern Afghanistan, who made clear during the election campaign that his sympathies did not lie with Karzai. One Afghan analyst speculated that Atmar, like Karzai a Pashtun from the south, was "sacrificed" to show the president was not playing ethnic politics.

During previous clashes with the two, particularly with Saleh, U.S. officials had forcefully intervened with Karzai. This time, they were conspicuously silent except to say that they respected Karzai's right to run his own government.

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