May 15, 2010

Kandahar: Where Good Turns Ugly

The battle for Kandahar is deep in progress. Not the US Special Forces slowly encircling the city or the Marines behind them, but between local Afghans, the international press, and the US government and media. The city has become a massive fireball of propaganda.

Like most of the distortion emanating from Afghanistan, this latest battle for perception creates nothing except problems for all those caught in the war. And the American people are once again casualties of our own government, left alone to sort through endless disinformation.

Kandahar is already degenerating from stalemate into a losing battle for the West. Exactly three months have elapsed since Marines stormed Marjah and the town is still contested by the Taliban. Securing the city for good, to the point where Afghans feel secure enough to abide by US forces and the Kabul government, could take another three months. Maybe more.

Or the Taliban may never be truly “cleared” from Marjah, let alone the entire Helmand province.

How then are US and NATO forces supposed to clear and hold Kandahar, both city and province, in 7 months? And won’t the West need decades of development to build up this “held” territory? The challenges of one small town remain so enormous that stabilizing and restoring a government in Kandahar province seems an impossible mission.

And reality doesn’t usually end like the movies.

Given the outflow of negative information and our own low expectations, to us the question isn’t whether Kandahar matches America’s positive spin (it doesn’t), but if Kandahar is as terrible as thought. Unfortunately it may be. Kandahari public opinion for a US operation has whittled down to a small majority - if that.

A recent Army survey reportedly found, “some 94% of respondents did not want foreign forces to start a new operation.” Operations are said to be undergoing reduction as we speak.

America appears left with one tangible hope in the city. When Army Brig. General John Nicholson testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Afghanistan is improving, he singled out, “The greatest hope in me resides in the individual Afghans and tribes I’ve worked with.”

Though he was speaking of Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal (“one of the better governors in Afghanistan, if not the best”), who’s strict on poppy farming, Nicholson’s testimony partner, Frank Ruggiero, “echoed those sentiments for Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar.”

Indeed, Mr. Hamidi is a courageous and wise man. A Taliban refugee turned Washington accountant, Hamidi is supposedly clean, adept at raising taxes, beefed up with Afghan civilian support, and dubbed “essential” to US strategy.

Let’s hear what he has to say.

Three weeks ago his deputy mayor, Azizullah Yarmal, was shot dead while worshiping in the Sadozo mosque. Though Hamidi soldiers back into the field against his wife’s wishes, he guiltily admits he stopped going to mosque, a sign of the security more than his spine.

The provincial minister of cultural affairs, municipal director of women's affairs, deputy chairwoman of the provincial council and dozens of other officials have been assassinated since he took office three years ago. Kandahar's deputy police chief narrowly survived an IED two days after Yarmal was killed. Two days ago the number 2. official at Kandahar’s prison was gunned down by a Taliban motorbike assassin, which are pouring into the city.

“The bravery and commitment of some Afghans is impressive,” said Ruggiero, and rightfully so.

The Taliban still rule the city’s underground, nor are they shy about going above ground, but Hamidi will keep soldering on unless he’s taken down. A big problem: those odds are way too high for America. What if he’s lost too?

The situation would certainly take a turn for the worst. Kandahar would be Wali Karzai’s.

Perhaps the reason why Hamidi was praised over the unmentioned governor, Tooryalai Wesa, is attributed to his statement that Wali is, “the one keeping Kandahar in balance, If you don't have him in the system here, you don't want to see what would happen."

Talk about a lose-lose situation for US strategy.

Yet the situation could turn even uglier if Hamidi stays alive. We could go on and on listing the ugly parts of Kandahar, some of which we already have. What could be worse, though, than the opposite of what’s theoretically best? Despite the lack of security Hamidi’s solution in Kandahar is simple: clean up the local government, which is beyond corrupt according to him.

“He also believes the balance of tribal power in Kandahar isn't reflected in government or the security forces,” records the Globe and Mail. “Certain tribes are favored over others that turn to the Taliban out of vengeance, frustration or the need for protection.”

This problem receives zero attention in the US media. Thankfully it’s kept alive by the British and Canadians.

As for a military operation, the Globe and Mail reports, “While Mr. Hamidi believes his new measures will help win public support, he doubts any kind of military offensive will be successful in dislodging the Taliban.”

“NATO didn't need to send more foreign soldiers,” he said. “There were enough. The problem is with Afghan security and the warlords.”

Now that’s a reality no Washington official wants to hear or wants anyone to hear going into the “cornerstone” of the “turning point” of Afghanistan. Kandahar may end up the point of no return instead of the tipping point.


  1. RE "point of no return"

    Here is a crazy thought.

    Perhaps this is set up for failure.
    Who would benefit if Kandahar is seen as a failure for the West? What would then be the consequences?
    Could the West use this then to "escalate"?


  3. A destabilized Kandahar is already being used to justify further escalation. The same problem though - chaos is never as easily controlled as imagined.

    I don't think Obama is withdrawing any troops whether the war improves or not though.

  4. I agree that he will not withdraw troops. At the same time surging troops into a combat position will not work. Afghanistan is their boot print for central Asia. It is their staging area. Afghanistan is in the center dot of the bulls eye. From there their reach is far and wide.