January 14, 2011

U.S. Surge: The View from Kandahar

From Reuters:
The U.S. military has stopped the Taliban momentum in southern Afghanistan, and is probably starting to reverse it following the surge, according to a study we wrote about this week here. The view from the ground, though, is much less rosy.

Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy has published a paper under its Afghan Voices series looking at how ordinary Afghans view the current round of military operations centred around Kandahar.

Author Zabih Ullah spoke to people in Kandahar and its surrounding districts and they don’t seem particularly impressed with the surge. Most believe the offensive will end up like so many other operations in the past and that the only people to suffer will be ordinary Afghans. It’s the ordinary people with no links to the Taliban who end up losing lives, getting wounded or arrested in these operations, they believe.

That said, though, the people of Kandahar don’t want the coalition to leave. They see a role for foreign forces in the province, but one that is focused more on stabilization and peace building rather than hunt down-the-Taliban operations that U.S. military generals have repeatedly mounted in the troubled region.

Zabih Ullah lists five reasons why the U.S. cannot succeed in Kandahar. One, so long as the Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province just over the border, they will be hard to defeat. Taliban commanders live securely in urban areas and there is even a separate hospital for injured fighters in the middle of the Baluch capital, Quetta, the author said.

In addition, there are thousands of madrassas in Baluchistan where Afghan refugees are being indoctrinated to carry out attacks on Afghan forces seen as slaves of foreign forces. Pakistan, though, has consistently denied the existence of a Quetta shura, the name given to the Taliban leadership council supposedly based there.

The second reason is that the Taliban have reworked tactics, learning from mistakes. The last time they took a coalition advance head-on was during operation Medusa in 2006 in Pajwayi and Zhari when they suffered a big defeat, losing hundreds of fighters. Their strategy since then has been to avoid engaging coalition forces on a major offensive when they can bring their superior technology and airpower to bear. Instead the insurgents tend to rely more on improvised explosive devices which Zabih Ullah says are scattered all over the area.

Thirdly some coalition tactics, which form part of any operation such as raids on people’s homes, increases alienation and ends up bolstering support for the insurgents. Fourthly a key weakness of the US-led operation in Kandahar is the decision to focus operations in five so-called ‘key’ districts (Dand, Panjwayi, Zhari, Maywand and Arghandab), plus Kandahar city, while neglecting six others where things are just as serious. Zabih Ullah says these areas are Maynishin, Shah Wali Kot, Khakriz, Spin Boldak, Arghistan, and Ghorak district.

Finally, he challenges U.S. commanders ‘assertion that this operation is different from the past because troops will stay for a long time in villages they secure. Zabih Ullah says this is something that the Soviets first tried in the 1980s and more recently by Canadian forces in Panjwayi district. Both efforts failed largely because they couldn’t really impose full control over the area.

The Canadian base in Mushan in Panjwayi district ended up looking like a garrison in enemy territory.

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