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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.

Although military officials say their informal surveys of residents show significant support for walls and checkpoints, local leaders have expressed unease. Kandahar's governor, Tooryalai Wesa, told Hodges that he does not want parts of the city to turn into an Iraq-like Green Zone.

Although municipal workers have registered about 20,000 residents into the biometric database and provided them with plastic identification cards, Afghan President Hamid Karzai put the registration on hold last week because of concerns over privacy rights, military officials said.

There are other grievances. Residents near checkpoints say electronic jamming equipment used by soldiers to prevent remote-controlled bombs interferes with their mobile phones. Shopkeepers say they are losing business.

"Since they put the cement walls up, security is better, but nobody is coming to our shops," an elderly man named Rafiullah told Hodges as he visited his small stall filled with sundries next to a checkpoint on the western border.

Hodges promised to "figure out a solution." But removing any of them involves a trade-off in protection for the forces in the city. Last month, three U.S. soldiers and four Afghan interpreters were killed when two suicide bombers stormed a police headquarters building that had not yet been fully encircled with concrete walls.

Hodges said the checkpoints have forced insurgents to find alternate routes into the city, either through the desert or on dirt paths, which limit what they can transport and how quickly they can move. "Will we stop everyone? No," he said. "But it is having an effect. The enemy is having to change their movements."

The Taliban are also seeking to place new obstacles for U.S. and Afghan forces. In the Arghandab district north of Kandahar, where U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are seeking to clear out pockets of Taliban fighters, the insurgents have seeded pomegranate groves and vineyards with homemade anti-personnel mines; several soldiers have been maimed by them over the past two weeks. Commanders are wrestling with the option of razing some fields to remove the bombs, which would eliminate many farmers' livelihoods, or assume more risk by leaving the crops untouched.

"Counterinsurgency doctrine says you don't turn the population against you," a U.S. officer in the area said. "But at how much of a cost does that make sense?"

Wayward cousins

Perhaps the most important reason population control worked to the extent it did in Baghdad was because each side believed the other posed an existential threat, and both turned to the United States for security. In many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the population has yet to seek protection.

Many Kandaharis regard the Taliban as wayward brothers and cousins -- fellow Pashtuns with whom they can negotiate and one day reconcile. They also worry about siding with their government because they fear Taliban retribution, both now and when U.S. troop reductions begin next summer.

But the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy depends on persuading Pashtuns to get off the fence and cast their lot with their government. The U.S. military and civilian agencies are trying to help the government win over the public by delivering services to the population that the Taliban does not offer, including education, health care, agricultural assistance and justice based on the rule of law.

That requires capable civil servants willing to work in an unstable environment -- and that's where the strategy is hitting its most significant roadblock.

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