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November 12, 2010

Repeating the Same Mistakes in Kandahar
Posted by Eric Martin

Anand Gopal has recently authored an insightful report on the history of the of the Afghanistan War as it played out in the province of Kandahar, where a significant portion of the Taliban's senior leadership hails from (see, also, this excerpt of Gopal's full report).  In particular, Gopal examines the failure to seize the opportunities that arose immediately after the toppling of the Taliban government, when many Taliban leaders were willing to abandon the fight, accept the Karzai government and withdraw from political life.

Rather than taking advantage of those fortuitous conditions and granting clemency, the Karzai administration, the local warlords and allies that replaced local Taliban leadership and US forces instead harassed, persecuted, targeted and alienated former Taliban officials, forcing many to flee to Pakistan in fear of their lives, giving others impetus to fight and generally breathing life into an insurgency that, in its current form, could have been largely avoided.  From the summary of Gopal's piece:

The Taliban’s resurgence in Kandahar post-2001 was not inevitable or preordained. The Taliban—from senior leadership levels down to the rank and file—by and large surrendered to the new government and retired to their homes. But in the early years after 2001, there was a lack of a genuine, broad-based reconciliation process in which the Taliban leadership would be allowed to surrender in exchange for amnesty and protection from persecution. Rather, foreign forces and their proxies pursued an unrelenting drive against former regime members, driving many of them to flee to Pakistan and launch an insurgency.

...The weakness of the judiciary and police forced many to turn to the Taliban’s provision of law and order, while widespread torture and abuse at the hands of pro-government strongmen eroded government support. At the same time, the heavy-handed tactics of U.S. forces turned many against the foreign presence.

...After 2001, most senior Taliban leaders in the province had accepted the new government, or at least rejected it but declined to fight against it. Most did not invoke the notion of jihad as an immediate reaction to the new government. Rather, only after a protracted campaign against former Taliban did many of them feel they had no place in the new state of affairs and began to see the presence of the government and foreign fighters as necessitating jihad.

While there has supposedly been an overhaul of US military practices in order to implement a counterinsurgency doctrine that would minimize actions that fuel insurgencies (such as those outlined in Gopal's report on Kandahar), in practice, such a doctrine is only being applied in fits and starts.  For example, the use of air strikes (which often lead to civilian casualties which can create new insurgents amongst the survivors) has increased greatly in recent months - a tactic not known for its ability to garner hearts and minds. 

Further, this article recounting recent military actions taken pursuant to the current offensive in Kandahar contains troubling details of certain tactics being used that are likely to result in even further alienation of the local population, while reinforcing the Taliban narrative and buttressing support therefor.  As such, once again, a heavy-handed approach and an over-reliance on punitive military action will likely lead to counterproductive results:

The U.S. military has destroyed hundreds of Afghan civilian homes, farm houses, walls, trees and plowed through fields and buildings using explosives and bulldozers in war-torn Zhari district, a practice that has begun to anger Afghan villagers.

The much anticipated third phase of the Kandahar campaign, called Operation Dragon Strike, has U.S. troops from the 2nd brigade, 101st Airborne Division pushing into a dangerous swath of once-Taliban dominated territory from Highway 1 to the Arghandab River.

But it has come at much material cost to the Afghans, who complain that the troops are destroying their property, leaving some homeless and blocking their irrigation canals —potentially derailing the all-important counterinsurgency strategy that aims to win the hearts and minds of regular Afghans. [...]

[US Military officials] also argue the destruction is actually a positive development — it forces Zhari residents to go to their local government center for compensation. U.S. Army commanders see this as a way to kick-start progress toward the final goal of the Kandahar campaign: connect the people of Zhari district to the Afghan government.

Given the close association between the the current Afghan government and US forces in the eyes of the Afghan people, it is unlikely that such a "connection" to the local outpost of the Afghan government will be a positive one. 

The tragedy is that the lessons from the early years of the Afghanistan War in Kandahar seem lost on a military that claims to have learned how to better battle insurgencies - armed with an ostensibly updated version of counterinsurgency doctrine.  However, this vaunted counterinsurgency playbook, the efficacy of which has been greatly oversold regardless, is only being applied piecemeal and the lapses are quite serious.


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Let obama not commit another strategic Blunder in Afghanistan.

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