Taliban down but not out in Afghanistan’s Kandahar

Foreign and Afghan forces have pushed back the Taliban insurgency in the key Kandahar province battleground but cementing those gains over the coming months will be the next challenge.

President Hamid Karzai and his United States-led foreign backers are in a race against time to prevent the militants from regaining strength, in addition to pulling Kandahar residents away from the Taliban to the side of the Kabul administration, military officials and analysts said.

US President Barack Obama, who will announce the results of a two-month review of his military strategy in Afghanistan on Thursday, said on a recent visit to Afghanistan that “important progress” was being made, and his Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last week Washington believes its strategy is working.

Foreign military officers operating in Kandahar also support that view, with the commander of Canadian forces there saying the number of Taliban fighters in villages they patrol has plummeted from about three years ago.

But making those gains hold in areas like Kandahar will be crucial if perceived successes are to be taken seriously, and they can only really be judged by the middle of next year.

That is when Obama has pledged to start pulling out US troops from a war that is deeply unpopular at home and which has, over the last 18 months, seen the biggest surge in violence since fighting began nearly a decade ago.

Afghans in the south already have their doubts.

“When the foreigners came first to Afghanistan we were very hopeful that peace would come and our life [would] improve,” said Abdul Sattar, a construction worker in Kandahar.

“On the contrary — we have been witnessing war, violence, suicide attacks and bombardment,” he said.

On Sunday, a suicide car bomber killed at least six Nato troops in Kandahar’s Zhari district, one of the most deeply entrenched Taliban strongholds.

Fighting usually increases from spring after a winter lull, although there has been no sign yet of it slowing down this year, with military and civilian casualties at their highest level since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.

The focus of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the latest push in Kandahar is “to deliver on security, governance and development and have enduring effects between now and, I would say, May”, Lieutenant General Marc Lessard, head of Canada’s overseas forces, told reporters.

Taliban birthplace
Kandahar is one of the biggest and most fertile provinces in Afghanistan and is the birthplace of the Taliban. It is also an important part of the illicit opium poppy trade that helps fund the insurgency, as well as a major road trade hub.

ISAF has about 25 000 troops, mostly American, fighting alongside about 10 000 Afghans in Kandahar. Many of the US troops are part of a 30 000-strong “surge” ordered a year ago by Obama, who pledged last year to begin a gradual troop drawdown from July 2011, making the fight for Kandahar in the next few months even more important.

Last month, Nato leaders agreed to end combat operations by 2014.

Brigadier General Dean Milner, head of Canada’s 2 800-strong force in Kandahar, said the number of insurgents in Canadian-patrolled villages had fallen to 1% or 2% of residents, down from 15% three or four years ago.

In the next four or five months, he said, the key issue was to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing themselves by building stronger government links with residents.

Job fairs, building roads and schools and crucial improvement of police forces, including construction of police stations, were part of the campaign. “We’ve been able to take freedom away from them. It’s wrong to say we’ve defeated them,” Milner said.

Lieutenant Colonel John Paganini, commander of the First Squadron of the 71st US Cavalry, said the extra US troops and coordination with Afghan forces meant that about 100 of the 134 villages in the Dand district of central Kandahar are mostly closed to the Taliban.

However another major obstacle in the counterinsurgency campaign is creating an effective courts system and police force. Police are widely viewed as corrupt and have high rates of drug addiction, illiteracy and poor retention rates.

More support needed
Major General Farooq Assas, head of the Afghan National Police in Kandahar and the neighbouring provinces of Uruzgan and Zabul, acknowledged his men still needed Western backing but would be much improved by the promised 2014 Nato pull-out.

“I would say we need more support in terms of training and supplies from our international friends,” he said.

The partnership with Afghan officials is often an uneasy one.

Leaked US diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, this month showed that US officials and Karzai’s own cabinet considered him weak and sometimes unscrupulous.

Analysts and the US military say endemic corruption weakens the state’s control and makes it difficult to build up institutions like the security forces and the judiciary.

“When the population believes they cannot trust their government … they turn to the next strongman, and that happens to be the insurgent most of the time,” said Paganini.

In some areas, the Taliban even have effective “shadow governments” which mete out rough justice and some services.

Clear victories on the battlefield are also hard to come by.

US commanders are only now claiming victory in the battle for the south-western city of Marjah in neighbouring Helmand, almost a year after promising a quick win followed by the roll-out of a now-shelved “government-in-a-box”.

In Kandahar, Afghan officials and ISAF are launching projects aimed at reducing the Taliban’s appeal, such as schools and irrigation canals, but don’t have enough public servants.

They were getting “some momentum” in hiring bureaucrats but low pay and security fears were obstacles, Lessard said.

“I have to say, this has been one of our biggest challenges, building Afghan capacity,” he said.

Gran Hewad, with Kabul’s Afghanistan Analysts Network, said the 2014 deadline was looming large even if foreign forces were able to help build Afghan capacity.

“The concern that people have is what will happen afterwards,” he said. – Reuters

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