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An earful after a military operation in Kandahar

Afghan tribal elders in Kokaran, invited to discuss governance and development, turn the focus instead on security, especially complaining about not receiving advance notice of military raids.

May 25, 2010|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Army Capt. Michael Thurman, center, listens as Kokaran village elder Haji Fadi Mohammed complains about the raid carried out a day earlier by coalition forces in western Kandahar.
U.S. Army Capt. Michael Thurman, center, listens as Kokaran village elder… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan — -- 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.

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