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News | March 29, 2010

Operations in Kandahar complex, require subtlety

A Soldier pulls perimeter security around Angory village just outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan, during a supply delivery mission and counterinsurgency operation March 27.
A Soldier pulls perimeter security around Angory village just outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan, during a supply delivery mission and counterinsurgency operation March 27.

CAMP EGGERS, Afghanistan (March 29, 2010) – More than 96 percent of the people of Afghanistan oppose the Taliban, but that doesn’t mean the Afghan government and the coalition are home free.

                While they want the Taliban out, they also want some things from their government and coalition forces, a senior NATO military official speaking on background said here.

“They also oppose corrupt government, and they don’t find local government officials who don’t deliver particularly impressive, and they don’t like [international forces] that destroy their property or kill their neighbors,” he said.

Three senior military officials briefed reporters traveling with Navy Adm.  Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen is here for another first-hand look at the conflict that soon will have more American servicemembers in Afghanistan than there are in Iraq.

Coalition and Afghan security forces are building on successful operations in Helmand province to launch similar operations in Kandahar city and province. Kandahar is the second-largest city in Afghanistan and the spiritual home of the Taliban.

An official describing the enemy said roughly three-quarters of Taliban fighters fight in or near their birthplaces. This means there is a very small cadre that comes from outside the area. “What we’ve got is a homegrown problem,” the official said. It is a complex problem, he said, exacerbated by ties of tribe and family.

Problems in the country are caused by the lack of military capacity and governance capacity, he said.

“More than anything else, it is the lack of capacity of this government to deal with the problems it faces. It is our biggest challenge,” he said. “In the end, the Afghan people will decide that there is enough capacity,  and it is their perceptions that we are working on right now.”

The counterinsurgency strategy stresses protecting the population. “We can’t shoot our way out of this,” he said. If coalition forces kill two Taliban fighters, they might have created another 10 insurgents, because each of these people has brothers, sons, fathers and extended families who might seek revenge.

“In our strategy there is a bet, and that bet is that we, the coalition, can only get the Afghans to a certain place, and at some point they are going to have to deliver on the governance piece,” he said. “The bet is that if we create the conditions – if we partner, if we bridge, if we create the space – they can deliver.”

Partnership is key to success, and coalition forces are partnering with Afghan army units and Afghan police in the field as they conduct operations. The Afghan National Civil Order Police worked with Marines in the operation in Marja and came out with excellent reports, said officials.

Officials understand that even with the surge into the country, there will not be enough troops to impose peace, nor will there be enough units to partner with every Afghan unit. The idea is to “rob the oxygen” from the insurgency in key areas and create the conditions for the government to succeed.

Marja is not over yet, but it is going in the right direction, the official said. Bazaars are open, families are returning, and there are signs that the Taliban are having problems. Small numbers of Taliban are actually starting to come in. “They are frustrated,” the official noted. “They saw the coalition really emphasize communication in Marja.”

Shaping operations already have begun in Kandahar, officials said, and Afghan officials are briefing Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the operation.  “He has to lead this fight,” the official said. “He’s very good when you get him out of the palace, and he has great effect as a tribal leader.” 

Part of the strategy is to “shura our way to success,” he said.  Afghan government officials must hold shuras – meetings of influential community leaders – with groups throughout Kandahar and its approaches,  he said. The people have to ask for the operation, just as they did in Helmand.

“We’re going to have to have a situation where they invite us in,” the official said.

The success in Helmand has encouraged Afghans, and officials hope this transfers to Kandahar.

“The key is we have to be done by Ramadan,” the official said. “We have to be in the ‘hold and build’ phase when that starts [in mid-August].”