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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The battle for Kandahar

The International Security Assistance Force — ISAF, as it’s known in Afghanistan — hasn’t been shy about its plans to “retake” Kandahar. But as with so many other operations in the country, there seems to be as much myth as there is fact about what the city is like, and what ISAF’s plans are for occupying it. As the second-largest city in Afghanistan, rich with history both for Pashtun rule in the country and as the Taliban’s birthplace, Kandahar holds tremendous symbolism. Here’s what’s important about Kandahar, and what the military is intending to do about it.

Kandahar before 2010

In the popular imagination, Kandahar is known as the homeland of the Taliban. And it is: in 1994, a small group of religious students instigated a violent revolt against the predatory and oppressive rule of the mujahidin, giving birth to the Taliban.

After the invasion of 2001, the American military established Kandahar Airfield as their primary base in the South of the country. From there, they ran a series of operations. Despite these operations, the Taliban solidified their presence and influence in the area, and by 2006 it had become significantly less safe than it was in 2002. In 2006, responsibility for the South, called Regional Command-South, or RC-S by ISAF, was passed over to the British military. They embarked on yet another series of large-scale operations involving thousands of troops meant to push the Taliban out of key strategic areas, but were so ineffective they had to do so again the next year.

Ahmad Wali Karzai

Ahmad Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Photo: AP Photo

By 2008, Kandaharis by and large registered deep disappointment with ISAF, and the United States in particular. Despite years of promises, they have no reliable government, the police remain corrupt and predatory, and the governorship keeps changing so quickly they can barely establish their rule. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali — who faces persistent accusations of involvement in the heroin trade — heads the provincial council, and maintains strong ties to the business community. According to a recent poll conducted by the U.S. Army, 94 percent of Kandaharis don’t want the U.S. to begin a new operation in their city. The residents cited widespread corruption as a major reason, as well as ISAF’s inability to contain or manage it.

What’s the plan?

The current plan to “retake” Kandahar from the Taliban is loosely modeled after this year’s earlier operation in Marjeh, in neighboring Helmand Province. While in Marjeh the campaign began with a massive incursion of military forces, followed by a small cadre of civilian reconstruction specialists, in Kandahar there is a concerted effort to make the push more political and less militarized — General McChrystal calls it a “process” now instead of an “offensive.” Part of the campaign involves warning citizens of Kandahar that they need to report Taliban activity, or, if they can, flee the areas most likely to be mined or bombed, thus sparing innocent casualties.

To this end, there have been a series of low-key Special Forces raids into the city proper, attempting to identify and either capture or kill known Taliban commanders. To supplement this push into the city, hundreds of troops are being arrayed in the vast farming areas around Kandahar in an attempt to “choke off” the Taliban’s supply lines. At the same time, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, has been meeting with local elders and politicians in an attempt to gin up popular support for the coming offensive.

What should we expect?

The biggest challenge ISAF faces is popular discontent. In a recent meeting with Kandahari elders, General McChrystal got an earful about how afraid they are to help the Americans because they fear reprisals. Similarly, at a recent town hall meeting in the city, President Karzai promised that he wouldn’t allow any operation until the elders were satisfied with the plan. The speech, according to reporters on the scene, made General McChrystal visibly uncomfortable. The Army has also conducted its own polling to test the waters. The Human Terrain System (full disclosure: I used to work as an analyst for HTS, though I left nearly a year before this survey was planned and conducted) reported in its survey that 94 percent of the people in Kandahar province do not support the idea of a U.S. offensive in the area. The survey has limitations—they only could reach a few districts where it was safe enough to travel—but that probably indicates a similar level of support in inaccessible areas.

ISAF faces a number of political challenges as well. A majority of Afghan watchers point to Ahmed Wali Karzai as one of the biggest barriers to smooth operations in the city—he demands a cut of most commerce that takes place in the area, and the DEA alleges he has ties to the illegal narcotics industry. However, because he is the President’s brother, there is no chance of removing him from power. Similarly, Kandahar is, in effect, run by a group of families organized into mafia-style crime rings. They skim profits off almost all reconstruction projects in the city, and have developed a lucrative trade ripping off ISAF initiatives. They sometimes violently clash with each other.

Finally, the Taliban: in part because of the miserable performance of the government, and ISAF’s inability to stem the growing insecurity around the city, the Taliban have been steadily building support. It is likely they will enjoy a lot of popularity when the big troops push finally arrives, even if it is grudging — it’s probably a safe bet that Kandaharis don’t especially like the Taliban, they just happen to be a safer, more reliable bet than the Coalition. Judging by the way all the initial meetings about the Battle for Kandahar have shaped up so far, ISAF hasn’t yet figured out how to address the concerns of regular people or present the campaign in a relatable way.

That being said, the operation is going forward whether it’s a good idea or not. Too many troops have been assigned to the area, and the military has sunk too much social and intellectual capital in the idea of retaking the “population centers” of Afghanistan as a part of its counterinsurgency strategy. As such, we can expect a slow, frustrating series of smaller operations until the major push comes, then a few weeks of violence followed by a months-long, ambiguous period of irregular bouts of violence across the city.

In the end, it will probably end the way all the other ISAF operations in the South have ended: a broad stalemate that alienates vast swaths of the local population.