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Afghanistan: the new strategy

Military commanders discuss the revised war strategy being used in southern Kandahar.

An Afghan man walks along a road on the edge of western Kandahar City on July 14, 2010. The U.S. military has set up 13 checkpoints manned by Afghan police and American paratroopers in the area. Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges said the checkpoints, called a "security ring," are the first part of this summer and fall's Kandahar campaign. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — Kandahar is a city built mostly of mud, clay and straw — the available building materials in this harsh climate. The city’s wide avenues and narrow warrens seem to be perpetually suspended in a haze of dust from the desert that is not far in any direction.

Although razor sharp mountain peaks pierce the horizon in almost every direction, their steep, rocky flanks sweep down into an awe-inspiring scene: valleys and flatlands, green and lush with wheat, as well as grape fields and pomegranate orchards, all fed by the Arghandab river. It flows from the north through Arghandab district, down through Zhari and Panjaway.

All three of those districts, and Kandahar City, are now the focus of operation “Hamkari,” the military’s much-touted counterinsurgency strategy that has brought an influx of thousands more U.S. troops.

Brig. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges is one of the architects of the operation. “Hamkari,” he said in an interview, is a Pashto and Dari word for “cooperation.”

Officers chose the word, he said, because Afghans have a negative association with the word “operation,” which brings to mind the bloody assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province in February.

“They said if you use the word, ‘operation,’ the average Afghan will take that to mean Blackhawks, artillery … inevitable civilian casualties,” he said. 

But the word “Hamkari” also denotes a change in strategy. The Marjah offensive earlier this year aimed to deliver Afghan security forces and government institutions as soon as the military operation ended. But more than six months later, both objectives are proving more difficult than military planners expected.

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Recognizing this, military strategists in Kandahar are focusing more on building Afghan government and security institutions in tandem with military operations. They say both aspects of the operation are necessary in order to secure the population from Taliban control.

Hodges likened Hamkari to a “rising tide of security.”

Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, called Hamkari a “campaign” during a mid-July briefing. It seemed fitting, as it is a series of different operations consisting of more than 20,000 coalition and Afghan troops. 

Hodges said the Kandahar campaign consists of three broad operations, tackling three different “problem sets.” The first is Kandahar City, which Hodges said requires a law and order solution. 

“A police, a judicial approach and something to keep the insurgents out,” he said at the NATO base and Pronvincial Reconstruction Team headquarters in downtown Kandahar, Camp Nathan Smith. “Because while the Taliban do come in and out, I would no way describe Kandahar as a Taliban stronghold.” 

The Taliban do have strongholds outside Kandahar City, where the military expects to conduct “clearing” missions as part of Hamkari, Hodges said. But that isn’t needed in Kandahar City.