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

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; A01

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.

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.

A recent effort by Karzai's local-governance directorate to fill 300 civil service jobs in Kandahar and the surrounding district turned up four qualified applicants, even after the agency dropped its application standards to remove a high school diploma, according to several U.S. officials.

The main impediment is security. Afghans don't want to work for their government or U.S. development contractors in such an unsafe environment. But if the government and contractors cannot employ qualified workers, the government cannot deliver services and will be unable to win the population's allegiance, a prerequisite for improved security.

To crack that loop, U.S. officials are exploring ways to protect Afghans working for the government. One plan under consideration would involve transforming the Kandahar Hotel into a secure dormitory surrounded by concrete walls, for civil servants. Development contractors working for USAID are building compounds with secret entrances to minimize the chances that insurgents spot staff members.

Getting government officials in place is no guarantee of success. Kandahar's governor and mayor are regarded as ineffective administrators, but U.S. and Canadian advisers are trying to transform them into more competent leaders.

In the Panjwai district to the west of Kandahar, U.S. officials say, the district governor and the police chief recently got into a fight. The chief hit the governor with a teakettle and the governor smashed a teacup on the chief's head, the confrontation culminating in a shootout between their guards.

In Arghandab, U.S. military and civilian officials spent a year working closely with -- and praising -- the district governor, Abdul Jabar. When he was killed in a car bombing in Kandahar this summer, the officials blamed the Taliban.

But some of those same officials concluded that the governor was skimming U.S. funds for reconstruction projects in his district. His killing, they think, was the result of anger by fellow residents over his not distributing the spoils, not a Taliban assassination.

"It was a mob hit," said one U.S. official familiar with the situation. "We saw him as a white knight, but we were getting played the whole time."

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