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

By Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; A01

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.

In Kandahar, U.S. military officials said a complex web of official and unofficial power brokers stands to lose if efficient government and rule of law are imposed. "There are generations of families that have lived off corruption," said 1st Lt. James Rathmann, 31, of Palm Beach, Fla., who leads a platoon in Kandahar city focused on police training.

The leading power broker is the president's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is widely considered to wield more authority than the governor of Kandahar province. U.S. officials argue that he impedes the emergence of more-representative leaders.

Congressional investigators are completing a report on corruption, including payoffs to the Taliban, among Afghan security firms, many with ties to senior government officials. Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, working with U.S. investigators on other corruption cases, has at times been obstructed by "interference at senior levels of government," a U.S. official in Washington said. He cited the case of Mohammad Siddiq Chakari, a former minister charged with taking bribes who has left the country for London.

The Americans are reluctant to blame Karzai and his government directly for the delays in Kandahar. But the Marja experience, with troops fighting to provide political space for government officials who still have not appeared, taught them that their efforts must be matched by the Afghans.

"You've got to have the governance part ready to go," Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, one of the top U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan, said in an interview last week. "We talked about doing that in Marja, but didn't realize how hard it was to do."

"Ultimately, it's up to the Afghans to step forward," he said.

The operational plan drawn up for Kandahar last spring began with U.S. Special Operations forces raids against individual insurgent leaders within the city and in the Taliban-heavy "bands" in surrounding districts. At the same time, U.S. civilians were to help organize shuras, or meetings of local leaders and elders, to offer development aid and encourage them to take political control. By June, more than 10,000 newly deployed U.S. troops were to begin clearing the Taliban from the outlying districts, up to 80 percent of which the military estimates is controlled by insurgents.

The kickoff was a regional Kandahar shura in April led by Karzai, with McChrystal at his side. "Are you happy about this operation?" Karzai asked more than 1,000 tribal leaders at the gathering. In response to their loud murmurs, he answered the question himself. "No? Listen to me carefully. Until you're happy and satisfied, we will not conduct this operation."

At the time, U.S. officials were pleased with Karzai's deference to local sensibilities. Since then, especially in the absence of emerging local leadership, they have wondered at his apparent inability or unwillingness to lead.

McChrystal said Thursday that in the next few days he would make another trip to the city with Karzai for additional shuras that would focus "on all things to improve in Kandahar: security, governance, reducing corruption."

He acknowledged that winning support from local leaders was tougher than expected. Some see the Taliban fighters as their Muslim brothers rather than oppressors; others are afraid of assassination by Taliban hit squads that target government supporters or see no advantage in challenging the existing political power structure.

"There's no point in clearing an area until you have the capacity to do the hold, to bring governance" that does not now exist, one military official in Afghanistan said. "Without the Afghan government civilian capacity -- without a district government that can provide some basic services -- you'll end up with what we're experiencing in Marja right now."

Taking more time was not necessarily a bad thing, McChrystal said. "It's more important that we get it right than we get it fast," he said, adding that he did not intend to hurry.

Asked whether the delay leaves time for a decisive outcome by the end of the year, McChrystal was noncommittal. "It will be very clear by the end of the calendar year that the Kandahar operation is progressing," he said. "I don't know whether we'll know whether it's decisive. Historians will tell us that."

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