April 26, 2010

Kandahar’s PR Campaign Can’t Hide Dark Reality

The New York Times is a dutiful soldier. Aware of the lies, it nevertheless participates in the US government’s effort to “control the message” in Afghanistan. The NYT isn’t alone though. The entire US media faces this common dilemma: either stay in line and gain access to the White House and Pentagon, or stray and be cut out.

The American people and all those negatively affected by the US government lose either way.

The NYT reports
, “Small bands of elite American Special Operations forces have been operating with increased intensity for several weeks in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city, picking up or picking off insurgent leaders to weaken the Taliban in advance of major operations, senior administration and military officials say.”

Fortunately Kandahar can’t be disguised - unfortunately it’s not pretty. Could it be possible that no matter what happens, US and NATO forces can achieve nothing more than military stalemate with the Taliban? Stalemate, given President Obama’s narrow timeframe, is as good as defeat.

Not only are alarms sounding on the operation itself, America’s problems begin before Kandahar, in Marja. Military strategists have warned throughout history against fighting a war that’s already lost. Only two paragraphs pass before the NYT admits Marja isn’t on track. What was supposed to be the military and propaganda setup for Kandahar has gone quiet.

“Two months after the Marja offensive, Afghan officials acknowledge that the Taliban have in some ways retaken the momentum there, including killing or beating locals allied with the central government and its American backers," reports the NYT.

“We are still waiting to see the outcome in Marja,” said Shaida Abdali, the deputy Afghan national security adviser. “If you are planning for operations in Kandahar, you must show success in Marja. You have to be able to point to something. Now you don’t have a good example to point to there.”

The NYT labeled the once triumphant Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province, as “somewhat flummoxed.” Nicholson had predicted a few weeks would be needed to secure Marja, then a month. The operation is going on three months.

“We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’” admitted General Nicholson. “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”

Said one anonymous tribal elder, “The Taliban are everywhere.”

Now Taliban propaganda could be exaggerating its activity in the region, going after high value targets and spreading leaflets at night, but their activity is flagrant. Masked gunmen killed a 22-year-old man, Hazrat Gul, in broad daylight as he and four other Afghans built a small bridge only a third of a mile from a base in central Marja.

Mr. Gul’s boss, an Afghan contracted by the Marines to build the bridge, says he was warned four times by the Taliban to stop working before the attack. At the same time US funds for local projects and alternate farming methods are disappearing, with at least some dollars ending up in Taliban hands.

Colonel Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander deployed in Marjah, told the NYT, “You shake hands with them, but you don’t know they are Taliban. They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying I.E.D.’s and buying ammunition, everything.”

If Sakhi, an Afghan, can’t tell the difference what chance do US troops? And according to Sakhi, the Taliban’s shadow governor in Marja returned to the area in early April.

For an operation that was supposed to spring “from a box,” we wonder whether deep below the Pentagon they currently consider Marja a failure. Combining the ongoing situation there with the exponential complications of Kandahar creates a bleak outlook.

We won’t say the odds of success are zero, but the coalition appears to have lost the battle before it begins.

Like Marja we are being told that Kandahar is a political surge first, military second. A series of shuras are supposed to be held periodically to coordinate local programs, gather feedback, and address grievances. But without immediate progress they will likely emulate Karzai’s less than warm welcome in early April and potentially work against US commanders.

The NYT reports, “This may be the most difficult hurdle, since there are doubts among Western officials about the ability of the Afghan government to supply an ample number of effective and qualified civil administrators.”

Indeed, if the resources don’t exist to staff Marja’s local government they don’t exist to run Kandahar.

In regards to President Hamid Karzai, the constant friction generated with Washington will hinder the entire Kandahar campaign. First, at a national level, Afghanistan is unlikely to undergo the reforms necessary to reconstruct Kandahar province and employ its people. He’s also threatened to block the operation.

And at the local level sits his immovable brother and head of the provincial council, Wali Karzai, who the NYT calls, “the most powerful person in Kandahar.” US officials admit they’ve failed to persuade Karzai to remove his brother so now, “would like to see his influence reduced as provincial government is reformed.” Accordingly, “American and NATO officials are not eager to speak publicly about one of their biggest challenges.”

This unprepared political environment will have adverse and potentially disastrous effects on the coalition’s military campaign, and could very well determine America's fate in Afghanistan.

The many flaws in what everyone realizes is the do or die campaign explains why The New York Times is leading with Special Forces - they’re the only thing America has going in Kandahar. So while the political situation nosedives what we hear from Washington is, “Large numbers of insurgent leadership based in and around Kandahar have been captured or killed.”

Just like Marja.

But there’s an alternative reason for why US Special Forces are stalking the outskirts of Kandahar. American and allied commanders, unable to call off the operation, have recognized the local approval necessary to support sustained military operations doesn’t exist. They are trying to minimize the US presence as much as possible, hoping to rely heavily on Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the city.

Reuters reports, “Inside the city itself there is very little presence of Western forces. Many of the city's teeming residential districts are almost entirely out of bounds for Afghan police, especially at night.”

US commanders must ultimately confront the reality their troops are heading into. According to preliminary battle reports the offensive will involve, in addition to 8,000 presently stationed NATO troops, another 23,000; about 8,500 Americans, 3,000 Canadians and 12,000 Afghan soldiers and police.

Again returning to Marja, Reuters notes that US commanders tried to lead with Afghan forces - and how the Marine Corps officers ended up doing most of the hard fighting.

How then could Afghan forces possibly take the lead in Kandahar when they didn’t in Marja? And how, if Marja required 15,000 total troops, are 30,000 supposed to capture a city 5 times larger in area and population? Marja was high-balled at 80,000 people and is more like 40-60,000; Kandahar houses at least 300,000 people. Nor is Marja as vital to the Taliban in the grand scheme to Kandahar, or as ingrained with their influence.

Yet how long does the US military expect to “secure the city?” August, not even several months after the main operation begins in late May or early June. Just like they told us with Marja.

Leaving aside the province, what if Kandahar city takes until 2011 or beyond to “secure?” What if the Taliban do as they say, melt away, and return? What if Kandahar’s security reverts like Marja in the absence of political reform? So many parts of the West’s strategy don’t make sense.

Ultimately it may not be a military operation specifically that Kandahar locals oppose, but the reality that force will solve nothing in the end. They barely trust the military operation to succeed and have no trust at all in the political system.

Rather than feeling liberated, they feel doomed.

The NYT reports, “While the officials stressed that they will limit civilian casualties, an increase in operations will put more residents in the cross-fire. The fighting already under way in the province is putting at risk the sharp drop in civilian casualties that followed General McChrystal’s orders to strenuously avoid them. Recent episodes of civilian casualties, including an attack on a bus, have undermined trust for NATO operations.”

“Instead of bringing people close to the government,” cautioned Haji Mukhtar, a Kandahar Provincial Council member, more combat “will cause people to stay further from the government and hate the foreigners more.”

Sounds like we’ll continue hearing a low flow of information from Marja and a lot more US Special Forces.

1 comment:

  1. A lot can happen between now and the beginning of the offensive. Karzai is running all over the place. Making visits with the Taliban, and even India. I am sure he has a hot line to Iran and China.

    We will be hearing a lot of "conditions on the ground".
    You are correct. Imo, Obama can not afford a stalemate, or even a long drawn out battle over Kandahar.

    His best route for victory is to call it OFF. This could be the ultimate test of the Alliance.