In Kandahar, U.S. tries the lessons of Baghdad

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- This city is starting to feel a lot like Baghdad.

Tall concrete blast walls, like those that surround the Green Zone, are seemingly everywhere. Checkpoints supervised by U.S. soldiers have been erected on all major roads leading into the city. Residents are being urged to apply for new identification cards that require them to have their retinas scanned and their fingerprints recorded.

As U.S. and NATO commanders mount a major effort to counter the Taliban's influence in Kandahar, they are turning to population-control tactics employed in the Iraqi capital during the 2007 troop surge to separate warring Sunnis and Shiites. They are betting that such measures can help separate insurgents here from the rest of the population, an essential first step in the U.S.-led campaign to improve security in and around Afghanistan's second-largest city.

"If you don't have control of the population, you can't secure the population," said Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, director of operations for the NATO regional command in southern Afghanistan.

In Baghdad, the use of checkpoints, identification cards and walled-off communities helped to reduce violence because there were two feuding factions, riven by sect. Because the city had been carved into a collection of separate Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, U.S. forces were able to place themselves along the borders. Both sides tolerated the tactics to a degree because they came to believe U.S. troops would protect them from their rivals.

The conflict in Kandahar is far murkier. There are no differences in religion or ethnicity: Nearly everyone here is a Sunni Pashtun. There are divisions among tribes and clans, but they are not a reliable indicator of support for the Taliban. And many residents regard U.S. forces as the cause of the growing instability, rather than the solution to it.

Military officials hope the measures will nonetheless make it more difficult for the Taliban to transport munitions into the city and to attack key government buildings. The use of biometric scans will allow soldiers at checkpoints to apprehend anyone whose fingerprints are in a database of suspected insurgents.

"Just because Afghanistan is different from Iraq, it doesn't mean you can't use techniques that worked well there," Hodges said.

Another tactic employed in Iraq and soon to be copied in Kandahar involves major outlays from a discretionary fund that commanders can use to pay for quick-turnaround reconstruction projects. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top commander in Iraq who recently took charge of the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, called such money "a weapon system."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently approved a proposal from Petraeus to spend $227 million from the fund -- the largest-ever single expenditure -- to pay for new generators and millions of gallons of diesel to increase the electricity supply in Kandahar. Petraeus and other top military officers in Afghanistan have supported the costly effort because they think the provision of more power will lead residents to view their government more favorably, which is a key element of the counterinsurgency campaign.

But some U.S. civilian officials in the country question whether the increase in power, which will be directed toward businesses, will win over residents. The officials maintain that the United States will have to keep shelling out millions of dollars a month for diesel or risk further wrath from Kandaharis because a hoped-for hydroelectric project intended to replace the generators will take years to complete.

Green Zone revisited?

Contractors working for the NATO regional command already have installed 7,000 concrete slabs -- each eight feet wide -- around the governor's palace and the mayor's office, along major roads and in front of police stations. Demand for the walls are so high that several manufacturing sites have sprung up on the highway heading toward the airport.

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