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April 21, 2010

Kandahar Cluster**** Watch
Posted by Michael Cohen

After the rousing success of US operations in Marjah, where good governance, security for local Afghans and a demoralized Taliban defines that sprawling metropolis, it seems only natural that US military planners are planning an ambitious operation for this summer in Kandahar province where a mere few Taliban dead-enders and eagerly expectant Afghan locals will be sure to greet their American and European liberators with flowers and candy.

Ok, I jest, but after reading the news out of Kandahar the past few days I'm not sure if it makes sense to laugh or to cry. As Matt Yglesias noted the other day COIN advocates have long told us that no one who supports COIN actually wants to do COIN because it's so difficult. But in Afghanistan, in the face of obvious impediments to doing effective counter-insurgency (time, political will, lack of host nation support and civilian support and the continued existence of an external safe haven) the US plows ahead convinced that a COIN fight is the only way to protect US interests there. So instead of confronting reality in Afghanistan US military planners seem increasingly committed to inventing their own.

Take the impending summer offensive in Kandahar.  Week before last the Times of London reported that Kandahar elders told President Karzai in no uncertain terms that they don't want a NATO intervention in their city:

Visiting last week to rally support for the offensive, the president was instead overwhelmed by a barrage of complaints about corruption and misrule. As he was heckled at a shura of 1,500 tribal leaders and elders, he appeared to offer them a veto over military action. “Are you happy or unhappy for the operation to be carried out?” he asked.

The elders shouted back: “We are not happy.”

And apparently they are not alone. As Nathan Hodge noted on Friday, the US Army's own surveys indicate that Kandaharis are not buying the tonic that NATO and Kabul is selling:

The southern Afghan province of Kandahar trusts the Taliban more than the government. And that’s according to a survey commissioned by the U.S. Army.

Kandahar is expected to be the focal point of operations for U.S. and NATO troops this summer, but a poll recently conducted by the Army’s controversial social science program, the Human Terrain System (HTS), is warning that rampant local corruption, and a lack of security, could undermine coalition efforts to win the support of the local population.

The same report also indicates that a whopping 94% of Kandaharis interviewed prefer negotiations to the NATO intervention and 85% view the Taliban as "Afghan brothers." With word yesterday that Taliban guerrilas walked into a mosque and shot to death the deputy mayor of Kandahar as he was praying it's hardly surprising. This horrific act of violence against a public official who was seen as one of the few trustworthy government officials in the city - not to mention the increasing pace of suicide bomber attacks - is almost certainly a dispiriting harbinger of the violence to come should NATO follow-through on its plans to take Kandahar back from the Taliban. It's a point elaborated on by Tim Lynch who notes:

ISAF wants to clear the city in a slow, deliberate, methodical fashion, spending lots of time in hopes of avoiding casualties.  The Taliban appear to be trying to draw them into the city ahead of schedule in an attempt to bleed them.  If they are successful at inflicting casualties (and not even heavy casualties, just a few a day, a number which would have been irrelevant in past wars) then they will completely derail ISAF.  If that happens, RC South will want to throw the Marines into the fray and we’ll lose everything they have gained over the past 18 months in a bid to win Kandahar.

And for the record, according to General McChrystal, back in March, the concerns of Kandaharis would be factored into military decision-making: "I think the most important thing is to understand that before we do a military operation in Afghanistan, we really have got to get the consent of the people who are going to be [sic] affected by that operation.   And what I mean by that is, one, we've got to operate in a way that they find acceptable."  

That was then. Now Gareth Porter is reporting that military officials are backtracking away from these words: 

Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told IPS Tuesday that local tribal elders in Kandahar could "shape the conditions" under which the influx of foreign troops operate during the operation, but would not determine whether or where NATO troops would be deployed in and around the city.

Asked whether the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is committed to getting local approval before introducing more troops into Kandahar and surrounding districts, the McChrystal spokesman said, "We're not talking about something as simple as a referendum."

Apparently the Afghan people don't understand what's best for them.

In addition, we have this depressing update from Joe Klein, in an article that rightly causing waves across official Washington, about the enormous problems with our COIN efforts in Southern Afghanistan and how restrictive rules of engagement are putting American troops in greater danger and risk of undermining the coming summer offensive.

In short, all the warning signs about operations in Kandahar are blinking red. We have a civilian population that fears NATO intervention and is broadly sympathetic with the Taliban; we have a US military untrained in the ways of counter-insurgency and chafing at restrictive ROEs; we have an Afghan government that is hardly supportive of the mission and with Karzai's drug-dealing brother in charge of Kandahar not terribly interested in good governance and ending corruption; and of course we have a vicious insurgent force more than happy to up the ante by murdering innocent civilians and using mosques as execution chambers.

This all seems like a very odd way to follow-through on the goal of protecting Afghan civilians or even extending the legitimacy of the Karzai government. Indeed, one might imagine that a uniformly opposed escalation in Kandahar that results in civilian deaths and only strengthens a disliked and corrupt local government is not going to be met with universal appreciation by Kandaharis.  But increasingly it seems that the fetishization of COIN in the US military - and not facts on the ground - is what is driving strategy in Afghanistan.


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I feel very surprise to read this news. I think the idea that the Afghan government could be seen by Afghans as relentlessly and ridiculously corrupt is just stunning. I would say particularly in the wake of the president stealing the election, and then trying to blame it on the UN.

This all seems like a very odd way to follow-through on the goal of protecting Afghan civilians

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