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The challenge of Kandahar

Nearly nine years into the U.S.-led war, it remains a Taliban stronghold, ill-served by corrupt Afghan officials, and patrolled by Western forces just now getting around to governance and development issues.

July 02, 2010|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan — 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.

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