An earful after a military operation in Kandahar

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-- It was supposed to be a meeting about governance and development — two of the three pillars of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Kandahar province this summer.

Instead, the shura, or assembly of local leaders, at a police station Monday turned into a gripe session about the third pillar: security. The elders complained bitterly about a U.S. military raid in their neighborhood, Kokaran, the night before, and about a big security sweep Saturday.

Security defines daily existence here — for the military, for development workers and for Afghans. Without it, neither governance nor aid to improve schools, sanitation and clinics is possible. And that is the crux of the challenge for the United States as it tries to wrest control of Kandahar from the Taliban.

Kokaran and the surrounding area, on the west edge of Kandahar city, is located along a Taliban infiltration route and is dominated by the insurgent movement. There is virtually no functioning government — only the national police, whom the elders accuse of corruption.

But security operations intended to create conditions for local government and aid projects to function often run into a storm of criticism too.

“It’s not good, these big operations. They worry the people,” Haji Fadi Mohammed told the gathering Monday as other elders murmured in agreement.

American and Canadian civil affairs and development teams had arranged the meeting to follow up on Saturday’s joint U.S.-Afghan Operation Kokaran. It was supposed to be led by the mayor and deputy mayor of Kandahar.

But their vehicles had been commandeered by a delegation from Kabul. Though the police station in west Kandahar was only six miles away, they had no safe way to get there without risking attacks by Taliban gunmen.

So it fell to Capt. Michael Thurman, who had helped lead the operation, to conduct a session ostensibly about governance and development in a neighborhood where raw sewage and garbage flow in open channels in rutted pathways. But it actually was all about security.

It was an unusually spare shura. No tea or food was served; a proper shura features copious servings of tea, meats and sweets. Thurman, an easygoing extrovert from Nebraska, had expected to be “a fly on the wall.” But he plunged in gamely, thanking the 10 elders for “coming out here to talk about governance.”

Then, for the next hour or more, everyone talked about security.

The only local official on hand was Abdullah Raji, the deputy manager of the district that includes Kokaran. A U.S. development team had asked Raji to announce two modest programs designed as follow-ups to Saturday’s military sweep — distribution of supplies to schools and seeds to farmers.

But instead Raji, an immaculately dressed man with a trim silver beard, launched into a diatribe about development projects he said had yet to emerge.

“I keep sending people to meetings, but nothing happens,” he said. “Why aren’t these projects happening?”

Raji seemed irritated, which is understandable because the mayor, had he attended, was to have announced Raji’s firing. According to development officials, Raji had been accused of corruption and was on his way out.

It was of little consequence to the elders. The only visible hand of the government is the Afghan national police. Mohammed, speaking for the elders, accused them of taking bribes. Even American soldiers who train the police say they don’t trust all of them.

One of four suspected insurgents captured after a Taliban assault on the main foreign base at Kandahar Saturday night was a police recruit. Three Canadian soldiers and 10 civilian workers were wounded in the attack. According to the Canadian military, bomb-making materials were found in the officer’s quarters at a police training academy a few miles from the base.

The Kandahar assault was one of three bold attacks by the Taliban over five days. Insurgents also attacked the sprawling U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul. Intelligence officials on Monday announced the arrest of seven people in connection with the third attack — the car bombing of a Western convoy in Kabul.

Eighteen people died in that explosion, mainly Afghan passers-by, but the toll also included two colonels, one American and one Canadian, and two U.S. lieutenant colonels.

The strikes were thought to signal the beginning in earnest of a Taliban spring offensive — the insurgency’s apparent answer to the Western military campaign in Kandahar.

In Kokaran, Mohammed said the elders were willing to work with the police, and had a good relationship with the chief of the local station. But he also told Thurman that the elders could play a big part in providing security — if only the military would notify them beforehand of any raids.

Mohammed was particularly irked by a U.S. snatch-and-grab operation in Kokaran on Sunday night in which eight suspected insurgents were detained. Thurman told him that the raid was mounted at the last minute, and captured a Taliban commander. Even he wasn’t told about it, he said later.

Thurman explained that Saturday’s larger operation was led by Afghan police. No American soldiers entered anyone’s home, he said. Only female Afghan police officers went inside compounds.

Mohammed said elders could help identify suspected insurgents, especially if they had advance notice of operations.

But U.S. commanders say that the elders have yet to turn over information on a suspect. Thurman, however, promised that he and the local police chief would work closely with them. “I do agree with you that security starts with the people first,” Thurman said.

The discussion turned briefly to development. The elders complained that their neighborhood had received visits from U.S. and Canadian aid teams, but no projects.

Master Warrant Officer Kevin Walker, a Canadian civil affairs specialist, explained that Kokaran had to be secured first. He had heard such complaints before; he’s on his third tour in Afghanistan.

Walker, who has visited Mohammed at his home, told him that Saturday’s operation, designed to cut Taliban infiltration routes and set up police checkpoints, would make it easier to visit and discuss development projects.

“The fact that he made the effort to get here shows he’s serious and wants to engage with us,” Walker said of Mohammed afterward.

Mohammed shrugged and grinned when asked about the meeting. He is a bold, demonstrative man, clearly the dominant figure among the elders of Kokaran.

“I’m happy I got my questions answered,” he said.

Asked about the village’s needs, Mohammed replied, “First, security.” Then he listed a medical clinic, clean water, better sanitation and improved schools.

Soon it was time to go. The American and Canadian soldiers strapped on their body armor and weapons and climbed back into their armored vehicles. Eight of the elders, dressed in flowing white salwar kameez and silver and black turbans, piled back into a battered Toyota Corolla station wagon. The other two left in a pickup truck.

Mohammed was asked whether the visit would invite retaliation by the Taliban. Insurgents have assassinated Afghans who work for the government or cooperate with Westerners.

He grinned again, his silver beard bobbing. He reached into his robes and produced three official gun permits signed by Afghan authorities.

“I have three weapons in my car,” he said. “If the Taliban have any problems with me, they know where I am.”

Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul contributed to this report.