By Karin Brulliard and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 8:59 PM
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - U.S. and Afghan troops flowed into rural areas west of this city in the past week in a new push that NATO commanders said would clear out Taliban fighters and allow Afghan security forces to take control of the spaces left behind.
The major thrust into the farming districts of Zhari and Panjwayi represented an escalation in the military's slow-moving operation to secure the surrounding province, Kandahar, and other parts of the Afghan south.
Top U.S. officers in Afghanistan expressed confidence in the potential of the Kandahar offensive and the gains already made. But even as more soldiers head to the front lines, worry persists inside the White House and the Pentagon about whether the effort to expel the Taliban will be enough to bring stability to a nation where poor governance and rampant corruption are seen as the primary drivers of chaos.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said in recent days that the current approach is paying dividends.
The competing assessments are likely to play into a White House review in December of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Officials in the White House and the Pentagon said it is unlikely the review will lead to major shifts in the approach, which is seen as progressing as expected.
But in a sign of the concern, senior White House officials have begun asking for more data about the war.
"There has been a real sense in the last month that U.S. policy has been somewhat dysfunctional," said a senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There is a lively debate among the military guys about whether we are moving in the right direction."
In an interview, the top U.S. military official in southern Afghanistan said the operation, with about 20,000 coalition forces now in place, has already boosted security in Kandahar city and government influence in some areas outside it. The Kandahar effort has unfolded gradually, following a rapid offensive into neighboring Helmand province that military officials have said was not well thought out.
"We are going to continue what we've been doing, what has been a very deliberate application of the principles" of counterinsurgency strategy, said Brig. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges, the deputy coalition commander in southern Afghanistan. "We have started changing that map."
A "security ring" of checkpoints and walls around Kandahar has led to increased commerce and movement, he said, and the continuing arrival of U.S. military police is helping build the capability of Afghan police. In the Argandhab Valley, a key entry point into Kandahar city, summer clearing operations and an increase in security forces helped Afghan officials take control of about 85 percent of the territory, up from about 50 percent, Hodges said.
But it is unclear whether military achievements in the south and elsewhere are being outpaced by the gains of the Taliban, whose leader recently declared that his movement was winning. The number of assassinations in the city of Kandahar rose in August, Hodges said, although he could not cite a figure. Insurgents have begun to spread throughout northern areas where their presence was previously marginal. Nationwide, militant attacks have doubled since last summer.
The military push into the Zhari and Panjwayi districts comes after the arrival of several thousand U.S. and Afghan troops in an area where there was previously one U.S. battalion. Military officials say the battle for the greenbelt, mostly south of Highway 1, is likely to be the most vicious in the province.
Taliban leader Mohammad Omar founded his insurgency in Zhari in 1994, and a terrain of grape fields and streambeds has since provided lush cover for fighters, whose domination has left the Afghan government in control of about 10 percent of the district.
Previous NATO efforts to capture the district have failed, but military officials say they now have the manpower to hold it. Special operations forces are capturing Taliban leaders, British engineers are destroying homemade bombs, and troops are setting up checkpoints along the highway and other routes into the city, Hodges said. The idea is to detain as many insurgents as possible, not chase them out, he said.
Taliban fighters are countering those moves with bunkers and additional bombs, he said.
"Either they're all just going to drop their AK's and melt away, or they're going to fight. And we anticipate that they're going to fight," Hodges said.
By December's review, Hodges said he expects to be able to show evidence of larger and more skilled Afghan forces, a doubling of electricity in Kandahar city, more Afghans in government jobs, and fewer illegal tolls and bombs on Highway 1. He expects more of the same by July, when President Obama has said he wants to begin drawing down troops.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has made it clear that he wants troops to have more time, and some military officers in Afghanistan speak as though they do, too.
"When they are confident we're staying, then they'll help," Hodges said of the Afghans. "But if they're not sure, then they will sit on their hands."
While the United States may have a clear plan to drive the Taliban from strongholds around Kandahar, there is little consensus on how to reform the Afghan government, some officials said.
"An Afghanistan free of all corruption is not likely," said a senior military official in Washington. "So the question is what can we do immediately and how do we do it? What people want is for basic systems to function. They want speedy and predictable judicial decisions to settle disputes and want to know their land is not going to be taken from them."