The Taliban’s momentum hasn’t been halted.
Maybe it’s ebbing as the Taliban reacts to President Barack Obama’s surge, but they’re watching with delight as Karzai fails to respond to the White House’s demands. Still a growing army that controls large amounts of territory and has diversified beyond opium, the Taliban is inflicting double the death upon US and coalition soldiers in 2010.
Every month has seen twice the number of US fatalities as 2009, a trend that held all of last year and will likely increase over the coming years.
Obviously part of the explanation is America deploying an additional 40,000 troops, but they haven’t definitively halted Afghanistan’s slide either. This doesn’t mean America hasn’t gained a few inches on the ground, but material gains are spoiling in the poisonous atmosphere spewing from Kabul and Washington.
The only real chance of putting the clamp on the Taliban is taking Kandahar, where half of Obama’s surged is headed.
It was evident from the beginning how important President Hamid Karzai’s shura between US military commanders and Kandahar’s tribal leaders would be. Kandahar is the heart of the Taliban and although it may be able to survive the loss, controlling the city and its surrounding territory is America’s only hope of “defeating” the insurgency.
That’s the ideal scenario though.
The most pragmatic prediction is military stalemate, which should be considered the best case scenario in Washington. While US officials speak of stemming the Taliban’s tide, the Taliban still believes it’s winning, a feeling that corresponds to the chances of political negotiation.
The Obama administration’s big gamble was that the Taliban will come to the table if they’re collapsing in the field. The other was that Afghans would accept America’s massive presence if the Taliban was the other choice. The Kandahar shura revealed these to be fatal miscalculations.
"I can't find one employee in the municipality who has got the job on merit, because they have education or are qualified, not one," complained Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who lived for two decades in the United States. "Instead it is because he is from this tribe or that tribe. This is our biggest problem."
"Ten percent of the people are with the Taliban, 10 percent are with the government and 80 percent of the people are angry at the Taliban, the government and the foreigners," said Mohammed Ishaq Khan, a leader of the powerful Achakzai tribe which dominates an area that has seen heavy fighting.
Thus Obama’s bets haven’t payed off as expected due to Kabul’s slow political process and agitation with Washington, combined with continual Afghan civilian casualties by ISAF forces. And now, the feeble momentum America has generated with its surge is already under threat from the gradually unfolding Kandahar campaign.
Though the White House and Pentagon tell us they understand the need for a political solution they don’t have one in Kandahar - and slipping there will take the whole war down with it.
US military commanders have always been aware of their dilemma in southern Afghanistan, they’ve just never had the militarily or politically means to change it. The Kandahar shura was supposed to be the tipping point, as Commander in Chief Karzai and thousands of local Afghan leaders unlocked the door for two courteous generals, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.
They were going to do this the right way.
Perhaps this theory sounded logical initially, but not much thinking seems to be involved. Karzai has confused his own people and the West with his behavior, so expecting him to rally Kandahar for America was a stretch. Nor was it surprising that tribal leaders went beyond criticism of the Karzai government, hiding behind ambiguous ties to the Taliban as they demanded America’s operation to be postponed.
The London Times reported, “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.’
“‘Then until the time you say you are happy, the operation will not happen,’ Karzai replied.
General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato commander, who was sitting behind him, looked distinctly apprehensive.”
Karzai has also left his brother alone despite US pressure to “change his behavior.” These events were warning sirens, evidence running contrary to America’s “better government.” When Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, found himself in the US military’s sights, this precluded how America would treat its push-back in Kandahar.
First a report leaked of doubling US Special Forces, already under fresh command of General McChrystal. No doubt they are destined for Kandahar. Then McChrystal gave up his pretense altogether, consigning to ignore local leaders and possibly Karzai himself.
US and NATO commanders will take local considerations into account but won't be controlled by them.
Gareth Porter writes in The Asian Times, “At a March 29 briefing in Kabul on plans for the Kandahar operation, however, an unnamed senior US military official told reporters that one of the elements of the strategy for gaining control over the Taliban stronghold was to ‘shura our way to success’ - referring to the Islamic concept of consultative bodies. In those conferences with local tribal elders, the officials said, ‘The people have to ask for the operation ... We're going to have to have a situation where they invite us in.’”
Now, “Asked whether the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was committed to getting local approval before introducing more troops into Kandahar and surrounding districts, the McChrystal spokesman [Lieutenant Colonel Tadd Sholtis] said, "We're not talking about something as simple as a referendum."
Sholtis said the three elders who expressed concerns about the operation had been supported by, “’probably about a third of the more than 1,000 who attended.’ But published accounts of the meeting show that the elders were not calling for expelling the Taliban from the city and its environs.”
While the chance remains that a few outspoken critics hijacked the shura, as US officials claim, opposition to what will be the largest operation of the war is more logical. Yes, the majority of Afghans might want the Taliban out of their lives, but not if foreign forces destroy their lives in the process.
They’ve seen how long Marjah is taking for one village complex. The Kandahar campaign could easily take a year, probably more.
Nor are they as opposed to the Taliban as the US was hoping for. Nowhere is ideological commitment higher, and much of the local anger is directed at the national government after decades of neglect and corrupt officials.
US commanders have no real means of fixing their challenges except for threats, triggering multiple alarms before the coming invasion. If Karzai continues to conflict with Washington, and without a local political framework to work within or reform of government positions, a successful conclusion to the Kandahar military campaign is unlikely.
It'll just be one big fight.
Afterward America, out of time, will either have to deploy even more troops or slowly crawl out of Afghanistan, using every trick possible to stave off the perception of defeat.