In targeting Taliban stronghold, U.S. depends on Afghans' reluctant support

Map of Kandahar, Afghanistan
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 16, 2010

ZHARI DISTRICT, AFGHANISTAN -- The battle for this rural Taliban stronghold is not about killing insurgents, U.S. military officials say. It is about getting the new district governor to stop the grenades.

Soon after Karim Jan assumed the post in June, the explosives began sailing over mud walls and onto U.S. troops patrolling the labyrinth of Senjaray, the biggest town in a district that U.S. officials say is under near-complete Taliban control. Two weeks later, five soldiers had been wounded in a half-dozen strikes. The attacks amounted to a test: Would Senjaray's elders side with Jan or the Taliban?

"All I need you to do is to protect your village," Jan, 35, told 80 weathered men who gathered at his office. "I'm begging you."

As thousands of new U.S. troops push into Kandahar city and nearby villages, their focus is on propping up inexperienced local leaders such as Jan. The aim is to persuade the population to defy the Taliban and back the weak Afghan government at its lowest levels -- a mission sure to be watched closely for signs of progress during the Obama administration's war review in December.

"It's a trial, and the people are the jury," said Army Capt. Nick Stout, 27, a commander of the 101st Airborne company that has patrolled Senjaray out of a sun-scorched hilltop outpost for two months. "Whoever presents the best case . . . they're going to side with."

One new approach in prosecuting the case against the Taliban moved forward this week when the Afghan government approved a U.S.-backed plan to create local defense forces in rural areas.

But that plan and the accompanying effort to bolster local governments are hampered by villagers' conflicted loyalties, the Taliban's stranglehold on the population and Afghans' anger at the U.S. military presence. NATO officials say nowhere could it be more difficult to promote governance than in Zhari, a tribal patchwork west of Kandahar that was the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Coalition forces there have never been large enough to implement real change.

For now, Jan is the government of Zhari, a lush agricultural belt the Taliban uses as a key command and supply center. Jan's 20 or so district cabinet positions remain unfilled because the provincial government is slow to approve candidates, and most are too afraid to take the jobs anyway, U.S. officials said.

Jan, the former police chief in Senjaray, won his job after his predecessor resigned to run for parliament. A 60-man council of Zhari elders quickly appointed Jan, a member of the district's largest tribe, and he vowed to be fair to all.

For U.S., cautious hope

U.S. officials express cautious hope that Jan will stick to that pledge. Lt. Col. Johnny K. Davis, the battalion commander who oversees much of the infantry in Zhari, said he thinks Jan probably communicates with insurgents -- perhaps as a survival tactic -- but is at least "80 percent with the coalition."

Since taking the job, Jan has negotiated property disputes and a blood feud. A jovial fellow with a thick mustache, he says he wants to open a cinema showing James Bond and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies to show constituents how advanced the West is.

But given the level of Taliban activity here, that is a fantasy, as is the mere notion of Jan's traveling much beyond his office adjoined to a U.S. base.

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