Afghanistan Strategy Shifts to Focus on Civilian Effort
By ROD NORDLAND
Copyright by The Associated Press
Published: June 8, 2010
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The prospect of a robust military push in Kandahar Province, which had been widely expected to begin this month, has evolved into a strategy that puts civilian reconstruction efforts first and relegates military action to a supportive role.
American development officials visited Kandahar University on Tuesday as Canadian soldiers patrolled around the campus.
The strategy, Afghan, American and NATO civilian and military officials said in interviews, was adopted because of opposition to military action from an unsympathetic local population and Afghan officials here and in Kabul.
There are also concerns that a frontal military approach has not worked as well as hoped in a much smaller area in Marja, in neighboring Helmand Province.
The goal that American planners originally outlined — often in briefings in which reporters agreed not to quote officials by name — emphasized the importance of a military offensive devised to bring all of the populous and Taliban-dominated south under effective control by the end of this summer. That would leave another year to consolidate gains before President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing combat troops.
In fact, there has been little new fighting in Kandahar so far, and the very word “offensive” has been banished.
“We cannot say the term offensive for Kandahar,” said the Afghan National Army officer in charge here, Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai. “It is actually a partnership operation.”
The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, insisted that there never was a planned offensive. “The media have chosen to use the term offensive,” he said. Instead, he said, “we have certainly talked about a military uplift, but there has been no military use of the term offensive.”
Whatever it is called, it is not happening this month. Views vary widely as to just when the military part will start. General Zazai says it will begin in July but take a break for Ramadan in mid-August and resume in mid-September. A person close to Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, says it will not commence until winter, or at least not until harvests end in October. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
American officials, on the other hand, say it has already begun, not with a bang, but with a steady increase of experts from the United States Embassy and NATO and aid workers — a “civilian surge” — accompanied by a quiet increase in American troops to provide security for them. The Americans strongly deny that they planned an offensive they are now backing away from.
Whereas in Marja the plan was to carry out a military assault to oust the Taliban, followed by rapid delivery of government services, in Kandahar the approach is now the opposite. Civilian aid workers, protected by an increased military force, will try to provide those services first, before any major military action.
“This is not going to be a door-to-door military campaign,” said one American civilian official, who requested anonymity in line with his agency’s policy. “You’ll see more Afghan National Police checkpoints, but it’s not going to be an aggressive military campaign. They’ve looked at it and realized it wouldn’t work.”
The troops have been arriving on schedule; for the first time, Afghanistan now has more American soldiers than Iraq does. Some 94,000 are here, compared with 92,000 in Iraq, with roughly half of them in Helmand and Kandahar, though the full troop levels will not be reached until August.
The United States Marine Corps assault on Marja that began on Feb. 13 was called Operation Moshtarak Phase II (after the Dari word for “together”), and planners initially called the Kandahar offensive Operation Moshtarak Phase III. Now Phase III has a new name, Operation Hamkari (Dari for “cooperation”).
“I’m not sure exactly what happened at the political level above us, but the very name of the thing changed,” said one NATO official in Kandahar, whose government’s policy requires that his name be withheld.
It is not so much what happened as what did not. Marja did not go nearly as well as hoped, and the area is still not sufficiently controlled for the local government’s activities to resume or take root.
Marja, with 60,000 residents, is far smaller than Kandahar, with more than a million in the city and the surrounding districts. If Marja was hard, planners worried, what might Kandahar be?
Then on April 4, President Hamid Karzai held a shura, a tribal assembly, with 1,500 local leaders in Kandahar. “He certainly took away the impression that people didn’t want to see Ramadi or Falluja on the streets of Kandahar, and I think we all said ‘Amen’ to that,” General Carter said.
In fact, Mr. Karzai promised local people that there would not be a Kandahar offensive. “You don’t want an offensive, do you?” he asked the crowd, to general acclamation. “There will be no operation until you are happy.”
Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak said the new approach was adopted after officials considered the mistakes made in Marja and the much larger scale of Kandahar.
“We have learned lessons, also, which we will apply in the future,” he said in an interview this week. “About Kandahar, it is a different type operation, it is not like Marja, it is not going to be that kinetic.” (Kinetic is military jargon to describe fighting.)
Instead, the emphasis has been placed on strengthening provincial reconstruction teams, once run by Canadians, with American employees — from the embassy, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture — in six crucial districts around Kandahar.
The Kandahar civilian operation increased to 110 Americans from 8 last year, with 50 more on their way this summer, United States officials say. They are providing subsidized seeds and tools, carrying out cash-for-work programs and even hiring employees for Afghan government offices here.
The program for agricultural vouchers alone has been given a quarter of a billion dollars to spend in southern Afghanistan, $90 million of that in Kandahar. “It’s huge,” said one official. “We’ve employed 40,000 people in cash for work.”
The idea, said Frank Ruggiero, the senior United States Embassy official in the south, is to make sure “the government at the most basic level, the district level, is able to provide some services so that people who are sitting on the fence are able to say, well, the government has something to offer.”
A key to being able to do that is the steady increase of troops from the United States and other NATO nations for protection.
Until 2009, a Canadian battle group of 1,300 troops was responsible for all of Kandahar and could do little more than keep the Taliban from taking the city — while leaving the insurgents free to operate in the surrounding districts. Canadian civilians working on provincial reconstruction rarely left their base.
Since last year, the United States Army has brought in the Second Stryker Brigade, a battalion of the 82nd Airborne, parts of the Fourth Infantry Division and a cavalry squadron, for the crucial outlying districts, as well as a military police battalion in the city of Kandahar itself.
“The military presence bought us the political space and oxygen this fall to start putting projects in to remedy grievances in the districts and more recently in the city itself,” said an American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with United States Embassy policy.
Their biggest obstacle has been getting more aid delivered by Afghans rather than by Americans, so that the Afghan government gets the credit for it.
Qualified Afghans who might work for the government have been scared away by a Taliban assassination campaign; others were siphoned off by the United Nations and relief groups that pay far higher salaries.
As a result, American civilian officials are urgently recruiting Afghans in an attempt to speed up delivery of services before fighting increases this summer, as many expect it will — offensive or no offensive.
“We’ve seen some huge strides,” said Katya Sienkiewicz, who runs A.I.D.’s agriculture vouchers program in Kandahar. “Everything is up for grabs this summer; we’re racing to get as much done as we can before operations start in.”
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul, Afghanistan.