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Like anything in this war, it is impossible to define events, or chains of events, in the same terms as you would define them in other wars. The battle for Kandahar, for example, is different than those battles waged for Hue or for Fallujah. In Kandahar, there will be no decisive battle or last stand. To be successful, not only will ground need to be taken, but a government will also need to be empowered and services provided.
Known as Operation Hamkari, the battle for Kandahar is really a series of steps that got underway late last year, shortly after President Obama announced his escalation of the war. The battle can be broken down into three phases:
1. Security in Kandahar City and on the main routes into town;
2. The push into Kandahar's heartland, the Arghandab Valley;
3. The upcoming joint-assault on the districts of Panjwaii and Zhari, which will attempt to knock the Taliban out of the fertile lands surrounding the city and back into the desert where sustenance is difficult.
Up until early 2009, the Canadians were responsible for Kandahar, training troops, building infrastructure and fighting with a rotating force that never reached levels higher than 3,000 in an area that sits in the heart of the Taliban. (And keep in mind that 3,000 troops translates into about 600 "trigger pullers" or frontline troops.) While not belittling the Canadian effort, 3,000 troops for one province — in the enemy's heartland, no less — just cannot get the job done. I point this out only because this is how the entire Afghan mission has been conducted, by all of the participating countries, since the beginning. Nine years after the start of the war, the battle is now just starting to hit full stride in some areas, including Kandahar.
Six years ago I embedded with the 20th kandak of the Afghan National Army (ANA). That would be the 20th battalion of Afghan soldiers to graduate boot camp (a kandak is the equivalent of a small U.S. battalion). After graduating, they were immediately deployed to Kandahar to provide security for the presidential election. Following them south, I remember walking in a long column of ANA soldiers as they snaked through Kandahar, showing off their presence. It is discouraging that we are in relatively the same position in Kandahar as we were six years ago. It feels as though nothing has changed. Well, some things have changed. Back then I hired a driver out of Kandahar to get me and my crew to Kabul with tens of thousands of dollars in satellite equipment. This is a trip I made twice, but I wouldn't try it today. I also walked from downtown to Kandahar Stadium — alone and unarmed. I wouldn't do that today either.
I ask myself, "What has happened here?"
The key to Kandahar lies with four districts to the city's west, stretching to the Helmand border.
In September 2008, the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment started what would be the changeover of U.S. troops replacing the Canadians as the main combat force here. Originally destined for eastern Afghanistan, the unit reinforced the Canadians after a jailbreak allowed hundreds of Taliban to join the fight in Kandahar. Deployed to Maiwand district, which lies west of Kandahar City along Highway One bordering Helmand Province, the area has more recently been described as a district that is just finally starting to move forward with a local government beginning to form. The district is important because of the highway that runs through it and its role in the movement of anti-coalition militants and their weapons in and out of Kandahar.
Lush, fertile and needed desperately by both sides, the Arghandab Valley is considered to be Kandahar's breadbasket. Located north and west of Kandahar, this district has been a launching point for attacks into Kandahar City since 2007. It was in the fall of that year that a large force of Taliban was tracked moving into the valley for the first time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The 101st and the 82nd Airborne has been conducting heavy ops in the district since January of this year; some open source intelligence estimates suggest the U.S. now controls 80 percent of the valley that lies in Arghandab District.
Since spring 2006, coalition forces have conducted a multitude of major offensives in this district located west of Kandahar City and south of Maiwand. Canadian forces bore the brunt of the fighting and are still on the offensive there. It is their last area of operations in the country before they scale back from a military venture and start leaning more on the humanitarian work. Open sources show that Canada has pulled its forces out of western and central Panjwaii, however, to focus on the eastern portion of the district that is closest to Kandahar Air Field and the capital city itself. Reports suggest the Canadians will soon step up offensive pressure to coincide with an American push in neighboring Zhari.
The United States took control of security in Zhari, along with Arghandab, in July from Canada as the U.S. escalation began to gain full momentum. Ever since then, U.S. troops have been conducting shaping operations that are expected to culminate in a full-scale movement sometime within the next several weeks. The district shares the Arghandab Valley and likely holds the greatest number of Taliban fighters in Kandahar Province. Zhari is literally where the Taliban movement was born in 1994 and is the home district of Mullah Omar himself.
The debate now in the press is whether the battle for the city of Kandahar is the "make it" or "break it" moment for the American backed coalition. The answer is simple: not a chance. There's no doubt that the Americans need to secure the country's second largest city (and by all accounts that I have found, the city itself is relatively secure with no "no go" zones), but to do that, they must also secure the areas surrounding the city — the fertile lands the people rely on for life. Without the two together, there can't be long-term security. Phase one of the operation currently underway reinforced and completed the security ring around the city. Coalition forces are now pushing out into nearby Taliban sanctuaries that, not long ago, were being used as command and control for insurgent activity into the city itself.
In addition, Kandahar is but one piece of the puzzle. There are a dozen more places throughout Afghanistan that need the same attention. So the premise that the war is won or lost in Kandahar is a premature debate. Securing and holding the land is the easy part. Putting together a functioning government, that earns the people's trust, will take many more years beyond 2010. Everything in Afghanistan takes time, as evidenced by the battle for Kandahar, which has been ongoing nearly five years now.
Reporter, embedded journalist, former Marine