Washington: Reclaiming Afghanistan’s key Kandahar province is the next major challenge facing NATO forces tasked with rooting out both Taliban militants and local corruption that extends to the brother of the country’s president.
The international military operation that took back Helmand province last month was seen by defense officials as a dress rehearsal for an even more decisive clash with the Taliban in neighboring Kandahar beginning in June.
NATO already has begun advance work ahead of the confrontation, shoring up communication lines leading to that provincial capital of southern Afghanistan. Coalition forces also have undertaken talks with tribal chiefs to gain their support.
Kandahar is a “tremendously important part of Afghanistan” that coalition forces simply must retake, said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
General Stanley McChrystal commander of US forces in Afghanistan said earlier this month that he will take on Taliban militants in their Kandahar strongholds this summer in a series of rolling engagements, once sufficient reinforcements are on the ground.
General David Petraeus, who heads the US Army’s Central Command and oversees US strategy in Afghanistan, said earlier this month that the Marjah campaign is only “the initial salvo” in a larger 12-18 month offensive that aims to drive out the Taliban and “clear, hold and build” stability in those areas.
The upcoming Kandahar offensive promises to be a major test of McChrystal’s counter insurgency strategy — and experts said failure is not an option.
“It’s impossible to defeat the insurgency without holding Kandahar,” said John Nagl, a retired military office now at the Center for A New American Security (CNAS) think tank.
“If the Taliban were the Third Reich, this would be Berlin. This is where it began,” Nagl said of Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual heartland.
A military source told AFP that the upcoming operation at Kandahar is likely to involve more than 15,000 Afghan and foreign soldiers.
US reinforcements are expected to take positions throughout the province, forming a “tighter ring of security around Kandahar” that will allow Afghan forces to concentrate on securing and establishing their authority in the city of some 900,000 people which is riddled with Taliban fighters as well as criminal gangs.
Military officials said they hope to rid the city of Taliban by the start of observances marking Ramadan in mid-August.
However, beyond security, the most pressing challenge facing the coalition is the rampant corruption at the local level.
The challenge is embodied in the figure of President Karzai’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who heads the provincial council and enjoys extensive ties to the local drug trade on one hand and with the CIA on the other.
The unnamed US military official said that, broadly speaking, the aim of the June military operation will be “changing out the political players, trying to work to get a new police chief” as well as replacing other local leadership.
They will be “looking at district, provincial leaders, city workers, trying to figure out who’s corrupt, who we can work with, who can stay and help us establish authority,” he said.
“Very few people are really completely clean,” he continued.
“You have to figure out who you can work with and co-opt and getting rid of those who are so wrapped into corruption that they’ve got to go.”
Biddle warned however against closing an eye to corruption that permeates Afghan society.
“If we decide we continue to accept the bargain in which we tolerate corruption in exchange for assistance of some kind, we are going to lose the war,” he said.
According to Nagl, ousting the Taliban from Kandahar is really only half the battle for the US-led troops.
“The hard part is not going to be clearing out the insurgents from Kandahar,” he said.
“The hard part is going to be holding and building afterwards with insufficient quantities of sufficiently trained, loyal, professional security forces and government officials.”