Afghanistan: the new strategy

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. 

Around 6,000 concrete walls of varying size have been erected around the city as part of a new “ring of security.” The ring is composed of 13 checkpoints. A battalion of paratroopers now man the checkpoints along with a platoon of Afghan national police.

The Afghan national police troops are thought by the U.S. military to be more professional than local police forces. In Kandahar, the police are almost universally despised, largely because they often demand bribes from residents and shake down travelers and truckers.

Several Kandahar City residents said they were happy with the new security ring. But Hodges’ personal translator, Waheed, said they might not have been speaking from their hearts. After decades of war, they’ve learned to hedge their bets.

“They are afraid that later on the Afghan police, or Army, or whatever, they will come to them and hurt them,” said Waheed, who is an Afghan-American and the former editor of a newspaper in Kabul. “So they are afraid.”

In an effort to improve the police force, the Americans have dispatched more than 500 military police trainers to Kandahar City — five times the number of trainers that were here just a few months ago.

Hodges said he hopes the added security can provide the space needed to improve the police force and allow the Afghan government institutions in Kandahar to expand and strengthen.

Gen. Carter said that means setting up a bureaucracy to register and track everything from cars to religious schools, vehicles and security companies. There’s need for a census, he said, and for a functioning justice system to resolve conflicts.

“It’s really about bringing order to a very disorderly situation,” Carter said in an interview.

Kandahar has a governor and a mayor, but their offices are woefully understaffed. Mayor Ghulam Hayder Hamidi, an Afghan-American, is known as an anti-corruption crusader. But there’s little he can do for his city of 500,000 with his staff of 65. He’s supposed to have 119, but he fired many workers because of incompetency or corruption.

“We don’t want to hire students who never went to schools, who are only hired by tribes, warlords, drug dealers or connections,” he said. “We are looking to hire educated and good people. That’s a reason we have less people.”

Intimidation and assassinations by the Taliban might be another reason. Hamidi’s deputy was killed this spring as he prayed in a city mosque. Other qualified workers have been snatched up by the better paying international organizations and foreign armies in Afghanistan.

The governor of Kandahar province, Tooryalai Wesa, is in a similar situation, but on a grander scale. He said an increase in salaries for government positions is meant to improve the number of qualified candidates in his office. But the 18 districts in Kandahar, like counties in an American state, pose another problem.

There aren’t nearly enough people to fill the positions anytime soon.

“We need judges, prosecutors, financial people, census people, line ministries, agriculture, education, rural development, public health,” Wesa said in an interview in his office. “But it will be difficult to have all of these people at once.”

The most difficult districts in the province are the focus of this summer and fall’s campaign in Kandahar. The second phase will take place in Arghandab, which Hodges said is 50 percent under government control and 50 percent “contested.”

The third part will focus on Zhari district, where the Taliban basically have free reign. There will be clearing operations this fall, after Ramadan and the grape harvest, when the weather cools, military officials said.

Hodges said building local governments in Afghanistan is partly why the Kandahar, or Hamkari, campaign is different from February’s Marjah operation.

“What we knew before Marjah … is that there’s no point in clearing an area if you’re not ready to hold it,” he said.