Thursday, June 10, 2010

General: Kandahar operation will take longer

General: Kandahar operation will take longer
By Craig Whitlock
Copyright by The Washington Post
Thursday, June 10, 2010; 11:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that major parts of the military operation to secure Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, would be pushed back because it was taking longer than expected to win local support.

"I don't intend to hurry it," said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, visiting Brussels for a meeting of NATO leaders. "It will take a number of months for this to play out. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's more important we get it right than we get it fast."

U.S. and NATO commanders began laying the groundwork this spring for their campaign to gain control of Kandahar, an operation considered crucial to the success of President Obama's strategy for the Afghan war. The military side of the campaign was originally scheduled to surge in June and largely end by August.

But McChrystal said it was taking longer than anticipated to gain the blessing of local tribal leaders -- and Kandaharis in general -- for the operation. He also said commanders needed more time to ensure that Afghan government could step in after the fighting stops and provide effective public services, something that has been lacking in Kandahar for years.

"When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them," McChrystal told reporters. "It's a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people."

The Afghan government is already officially in charge of Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, but its control is extremely tenuous. Taliban leaders and supporters have steadily made a comeback since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

U.S. and Afghan officials have been trying to negotiate deals with Kandahari leaders before foreign troops enter the city and surrounding province in greater force. The Taliban has responded with an intimidation campaign, assassinating several key leaders and making clear that anyone who cooperates with the foreigners or central government does so at high risk.

McChrystal said the decision to move more slowly in Kandahar was influenced by the experience of U.S. and NATO forces in next-door Helmand province. Led by U.S. Marines, foreign and Afghan troops in February took control of Marja and other districts long held by the Taliban. But the effort to install a functioning Afghan government in the wake of the fighting has stumbled and now the Taliban is trying to reassert itself.

"Some of the lessons we learned in Marja is we did very good coordination with the Afghan people, shuras and whatnot, but then as we did it, we found it even more complex than we thought," McChrystal said. "And so we need to educate ourselves from that and do it even better in Kandahar."

Asked whether he considered the Kandahar delay a setback in the Afgan war, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, said the difficulties were actually an indication of progress in the overall war effort.

"I foresee a very tough time in the coming weeks and months, because we are now targeting what I call the Taliban heartland in Helmand and Kandahar," he said at a news conference. "But that's exactly our goal."

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