The challenge of Kandahar

Rahmatullah, a slender Afghan engineer who lives in Kandahar city, tried to be polite when young Shawn Adams of Digby, Nova Scotia, offered to help in his efforts to build a local school.

Sgt. Adams, 23, was leading a Canadian foot patrol when he encountered Rahmatullah, who complained that he and his neighbors had donated land for a school that the Afghan government has refused to build.

Adams promised to pass the complaint up the chain to his military superiors. But Rahmatullah simply sighed and said: “I’m sorry, sir. I’ve been here six years. I’ve heard these promises so many times I don’t believe them anymore.”

The recent encounter exposed the limits of good intentions in Kandahar, a province dominated by the Taliban, ill-served by a corrupt government, and patrolled by foreign forces just now getting around to governance and development, nearly nine years into the longest war the United States has ever fought.

In the struggle to win over Kandahar civilians and weaken the Taliban, U.S. commanders have ordered NATO troops to join with civilian development experts to create a competent government where none exists. But the effort has so far seen few concrete results.

Development projects have been modest and plagued by insurgent attacks or threats against Afghan workers. Residents complain of shakedowns by Afghan police. Many U.S. soldiers say they don’t fully trust their nominal allies in the Afghan police or army, who are scheduled to take responsibility for security by next summer.

What little government exists in Kandahar is overshadowed by a cabal of Afghan hustlers who have milked connections to high government officials to earn illicit fortunes. Last month, a congressional subcommittee said Afghan warlords have siphoned off millions of dollars through protection rackets involving security escorts for North Atlantic Treaty Organization convoys.

All this weighs down U.S. efforts to bring Kandahar under control. The province is the focus of the “surge” of 30,000 troops ordered by President Obama in December, but the heavy combat sweeps promised by top U.S. commanders in briefings to reporters in the winter have not taken place. Those commanders now say there will be no massive military operation here, instead describing a sustained effort designed to establish security bit by bit to pave the way for development and proper governance.

Most of the added troops have been patrolling Kandahar for weeks, pumping residents for information on insurgents while promising development and a responsive government. An accompanying civilian surge — specialists in government, development, agriculture, policing — is cranking out various community projects from their air-conditioned office redoubts.

The Taliban have responded with an onslaught of assassinations, rocket attacks, car bombings and homemade bombs. The NATO toll of 103 in June made it the deadliest single month for Western troops since the war began in 2001.

This is the landscape that greets Gen. David H. Petraeus as he takes command following the resignation of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was at the helm for just a year. Petraeus has his own short timetable: He is under pressure to show swift results in order to meet Obama’s determination to begin drawing down U.S. troop levels by August 2011.

The leadership change reinforces the sense here that the United States has been engaged in a series of one-year wars since toppling the Taliban regime in 2001. Because the typical troop rotation is about 12 months, each year brings a new approach that often is at odds with the previous effort.

Kevin Melton, an American contractor who heads civilian operations in Arghandab district, northwest of Kandahar city, said the United States began making a concerted effort in the province only a year ago. From 2001 to 2006, there was no significant Western troop presence in Kandahar.

“Why has it taken eight years to commit the resources to do what we really need to do here?” Melton said. “We took our eyes off the ball. So we’ve really been at this for a year, not eight years.”

In Arghandab, Melton works in the same heavily guarded building on a U.S. military base as four Afghan district officials struggling to create a local government. Afghans who wish to visit the district office must first pass through three security posts — a search by Afghan police, then the Afghan army and finally by U.S. forces.

The tight security underscores the frailty of the fledging local government whose officials must take refuge on U.S. military bases. When the Arghandab district governor, Abdul Jabar, ventured out June 15, he was killed in a car bombing.

Corruption is another corrosive problem. The national government of President Hamid Karzai is riddled with officials who have enriched themselves through bribes, government contracts and the lucrative drug trade.

At Camp Nathan Smith in downtown Kandahar, the secured offices of U.S. development officials feature a chart of the Karzai family tree. Laid out like a prosecutor’s crime family operation, the chart documents the expansive business empire of Karzai’s extended family. Western officials have accused Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, of parlaying family connections into an enterprise that controls trucking, security, drug and protection operations.

The president and his brother, who heads the Kandahar provincial council, have called the accusations false and politically motivated.

For soldiers charged with driving the Taliban from Kandahar, convincing ordinary Afghans that their government and security forces are honest and capable is daunting, especially because U.S. troops spend a lot of their time trying to avoid roadside bombs and ambushes.

“Our focus right now is on staying alive,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Mason, an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper whose platoon has encountered nearly 50 roadside bombs during several hundred foot patrols in Arghandab.

The platoon has built good relations with villagers, but has been able to mount only small aid efforts. There is virtually no local government presence — only farming villages with no plumbing or electricity.

U.S. officers here carry “talking point” cards issued by the U.S. military. The message: The Afghan army and police are taking the lead. The Afghan government is ready to serve the people.

But for all the attempts to put an Afghan face on the future, it is clear to all that this is an American show. Even illiterate villagers know that the U.S. provides the money, the troops and the leadership for what is called “Operation Hamkari,” or “cooperation” in Pashto and Dari.

“We’re the funders, the people in charge, and the Afghans know that,” said an American aid official in Kandahar. “But we have to act like the government until the actual government is able to take over.”

Nor is U.S.-Afghan cooperation running smoothly on security operations. Afghan army and police units are housed in separate compounds next to U.S. bases. Soldiers say they fear the Afghans will steal supplies and weapons or leak information to the Taliban. Officers say they do not tell Afghan security forces of impending missions.

One hot afternoon in Kandahar city, U.S. military police mentoring Afghan police arrived at a police sub-station for a scheduled foot patrol. The Afghans had disappeared. Police from a different unit had to be roused from mid-day naps and dragooned into patrolling.

The Afghan police “is only good for five or six hours,” said Capt. Michael Thurman, commander of the 293rd Military Police Company. “They take a long break at mid-day and they won’t stay out overnight.”

First Lt. Justin Kush, who commands a platoon with the 82nd Airborne Division in Arghandab, said the Afghan army unit posted next to his base is far better than the previous unit. Those troops wanted to stay on their base and play volleyball, he said, and their commander demanded favors — food, fuel, water — as the price to go on patrols.

The new unit actually patrols on its own and reports back on intelligence it has gathered, Kush said.

But other soldiers in Arghandab say Afghan army units rely on U.S. forces for logistics, supplies and direction.

“‘They’re always begging for generators, fuel, water, supplies,” said a senior non-commissioned officer. “They use their people and vehicles to forage for supplies, so they’re not available for missions.”

He added: “They can’t function on their own. But at the same time, we couldn’t operate without them. We don’t have the manpower.”

For all the challenges, civilian officials in Kandahar insist that progress is possible.

Bill Harris, the top U.S. reconstruction civilian for Kandahar province, said the 2011 withdrawal target should convince Afghans that this is their last chance.

“Now is the time,” Harris said. “We’ve never had the troop strength here we have now. We’ve never had the resources we have now. If we’d had this strategy two or three years ago, things would look a lot better than they do now,” he said.

In Arghandab, Melton pointed to signs of progress. Seventeen “clusters”’ of local leaders representing 75 villages have been created, he said. They meet weekly at the district center on the U.S. base to air grievances. Village elders have signed agreements promising to cooperate with U.S. and Afghan forces against the Taliban. Agricultural and irrigation projects have helped create 16,000 jobs. Local officials are predicting the best pomegranate harvest in seven years.

“For the first time, people are telling me: Yes, this is what we want,” Melton said.

Even so, he said, security remains tenuous, and many in Arghandab have asked how long the U.S. will remain committed here, given Obama’s August 2011 deadline.

“We are at the tipping point,” Melton said. “My two pillars of governance and economic development are going in. Now we’ll see if the table can stand.”