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The Kandahar gambit

Last week, the nation’s top military officer, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, journeyed carefully into Kandahar, the capital of Afghanistan’s conservative Pashtun heartland, to talk with community leaders at a shurashura, the Afghan equivalent of a town meeting.

It was a tense event in a dangerous place. To reach the meeting in the provincial governor’s palace -- a graceful, arched building on a grassy square where Mullah Mohammed Omar, founder of the Taliban, once ruled -- Mullen, his aides and a group of reporters climbed into armored vehicles that rolled through eerily empty downtown streets as aircraft patrolled overhead.

But the real source of tension was the battle that was about to begin. Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, has been advertised as the target of a major U.S.-led offensive this summer. The operation will aim to break the back of the Taliban on its own turf. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the offensive “the cornerstone of our surge effort and the key to shifting the momentum” in the 9-year-old war -- as important to the Afghan struggle, he said, as pacifying Baghdad was to Iraq.

In fact, the offensive has already begun with a “soft launch” of U.S. special operations raids to kill or capture suspected Taliban leaders, answered by Taliban assassinations of police officials and a string of suicide bombings. In June, about 10,000 fresh U.S. troops will arrive, part of President Obama’s Afghan surge of 30,000, to launch major operations in the province.

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In the governor’s palace, seated around a long conference table under modernistic brass chandeliers, the recurring question from a row of turbaned elders was: Will this offensive bring any kind of peace, or only more destruction?

“People are concerned about these [military] operations, when they will start and what the effects will be,” said Haji Agha Lalai, a former Taliban commander who changed sides and now heads the equivalent of a county council.

He also had a complaint. “Promises were made of jobs, but no jobs appeared,” he said. “We have seen many [military] operations, but they won’t have any real effect unless these things are changed.”

Mullen nodded, and agreed on the last point. The goals of the offensive, he said, were not only defeating the Taliban but also reducing corruption, making local government work and, eventually, providing jobs. “I hear your concerns,” he said.

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It is the central dilemma of the offensive in Kandahar, and of the entire U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

The Americans, confident of their military prowess, believe they can clear Kandahar of most of the Taliban who have roamed at will and operated as a shadow government in some areas. Strategists on the staff of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, said they believe the Taliban is already running low on money, ammunition and confidence.

But once the Taliban fighters melt back into the civilian population in the face of U.S. firepower, can the Americans succeed in installing a local government more responsive and less corrupt than the one whose failings allowed the Taliban to rise?

They intend to try, and are focusing talent and money on an elaborate “sub-national governance” plan to recruit and empower local councils, the shuras. “We’re going to shura our way to success,” one of the operation’s planners said. Among the first goals: persuading local councils to actually invite the U.S. military to enter their areas unopposed, making the offensive less bloody.

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But even the operation’s planners acknowledge that the outcome is uncertain. “This is hard stuff, and it will take a while to work out,” one said.

Kandahar’s provincial government has one big complicating factor: It’s run by Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. U.S. officials call him AWK for short and consider him an organized-crime kingpin as much as a politician. “He runs a vertical syndicate of corruption,” said one senior officer. Besides old-fashioned graft and a slice of the opium poppy trade, AWK also has been accused of collaborating with the Taliban, an allegation that infuriates U.S. military officers.

But AWK has two powerful defenders: his brother the president and the CIA, which considers him one of its main assets in Kandahar, according to officials in other agencies. So U.S. officers are hoping to persuade AWK to cooperate with their efforts. That won’t be easy, especially since one purpose of the shura-building operation in Kandahar is to empower new leaders who aren’t beholden to AWK, and AWK knows it.

One more factor to watch: Will President Karzai publicly approve the offensive, or merely accede to it? “He’s got to be seen as the guy who’s leading this fight,” another officer said.

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But Karzai initially balked at U.S. proposals that he travel to Kandahar to address a shura. And on Thursday, he delivered a speech in Kabul that was sharply critical of Western military operations in Afghanistan, saying the troops are walking a fine line between “invasion and cooperation,” and warning that Afghan opposition to foreign military operations “could become a national resistance.”

If the civilian piece of the offensive in Kandahar succeeds, the impact could be enormous, the most important success since the initial U.S. invasion in 2001. It would be graphic evidence that McChrystal’s strategy of using military force to build functioning local governments can succeed if Americans are willing to stick with it for several more years.

But what if the military offensive succeeds and the civilian effort falls short? Then the lesson won’t be so encouraging. We’ll face the same wrenching question Afghanistan posed before McChrystal arrived: How many more American lives are worth losing to a project that’s unlikely to succeed?

“In our strategy there is a bet,” one of McChrystal’s strategists told me. “We can only get the Afghans to a certain place, and at some point they are going to have to deliver on the governance piece. The bet is that if we create the conditions . . . they can deliver.”

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The odds on that bet still seem long, especially in Kandahar. The province was chosen because it is a difficult place, the Taliban center of gravity. Success there will be harder to achieve and more impressive if it comes. But failure would be crushing.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com


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