In deadly Kandahar, skepticism over gains cited in Afghan war review

The Afghan war review points to military progress against the Taliban. But in one of the most deadly districts in Afghanistan, there are already signs that NATO gains may not hold into next spring.

By , Correspondent

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    In this Sept. 5 file photo, US Army soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division Alpha Battery 1-320th leave on a patrol from Combat Outpost Nolen in the village of Jellawar in the Arghandab Valley of southern Afghanistan.
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During the military offensive into Kandahar this past fall, Arghandab district proved one of the most deadly for NATO and Afghan forces. Some NATO units here saw half of their soldiers killed or injured by mines, roadside bombs, and firefights. The district governor, Haji Abdul Jabbar, was assassinated in June. Just days after The New York Times reported that coalition forces were “routing” the Taliban in Arghandab this October, the photographer for the story lost both his legs when he stepped on a land mine.

Yet, as the annual quiet of winter sets in, a number of Arghandab residents say these sacrifices were not in vain.

“Before, we did not have security,” says Haji Shah Mohammad Ahmadi, the new Arghandab district governor. Until recently, residents in nearly half of the villages in his district were unable to reach his office due to the ongoing fighting, but “now the security is OK. Everyone can come here.”

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That assessment matches with the United States' Afghan war review, released today, which points to limited military progress that has stalled, if not reversed, Taliban gains. Yet the question remains: Can these gains hold into next spring and beyond, and does success in the south translate to nationwide progress across Afghanistan?

Already there are signs that the answer to both these questions may be no. The increased pressure in the south has pushed the insurgency into the north and the Taliban appear to be growing from a largely local movement into an organization with national appeal. Progress in strengthening the Afghan government, seen as a vital component of maintaining any security improvements, has been anything but steady, which is perhaps most troublesome to war planners.

“If the government doesn’t ... expand the rule of law through all the districts, I think that when spring returns, the Taliban will sneak inside the districts again and their presence will increase day by day," says Hazratmir Totakhil, director of Kandahar University.

Winter sets in, government ramps up projects

With the leaves fallen from the trees in the lush farmland of Arghandab, removing the Taliban’s camouflage for the season, the majority of Taliban fighters have made their annual return to Pakistan, where they will rest until the fighting season begins again next spring. Though a token resistance force is likely to keep up a murmur of violence, it will be nothing like the fighting seen this summer.

In this calm, Afghans are looking to their government and coalition forces to extend their reach into the districts.

Already there are reports that Taliban courts, one of the most popular and effective mechanisms of Taliban shadow government, are not nearly as active as they once were, say local residents.

Until recently the majority of government reconstruction projects in Arghandab had halted for security reasons, but now work has resumed on almost all of them, says Mr. Ahmadi.

Still, reconstruction efforts in Kandahar and elsewhere are almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. Most district governments only have a budget large enough to cover employee salaries, which is usually less than $1,000 per month. District governments cannot collect taxes, so they have no revenue.

“The main problem is that our government wants to strengthen the places where it is now weak, but we do not have the necessary facilities,” says Haji Agha Lali Dastagiri, a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council.

Guarded optimism over NATO gains

Still, Mr. Dastagiri says he is optimistic that local government officials can hold onto gains. The government has more control of the province than ever before. This winter, he says, security forces are pursuing the Taliban in their hideouts more aggressively than they did in the past so the government will continue to have more room to work.

Throughout the communities most affected by the fighting, there is general agreement that the offensive helped stabilize villages. Most locals, however, hesitate to be too impressed by these quick improvements.

“This is at least the third time that we’ve seen an offensive like this,” says Haji Faisal Mohammed, a tribal elder in the Panjwayi district, southwest of Arghandab. “The last two times, they left the places where they performed the operations and the Taliban came back and again people had problems.”

Mr. Mohammed says that in many regards this latest offensive was a success, killing a number of Taliban while minimizing civilian causalities.

But he worries that government corruption will undo many of these gains. The district governor of Panjwayi, Haji Baran, for example, is illiterate and stands accused of tribal favoritism. (Read a profile of Haji Baran here.)

Amid these conditions, a number of residents are unwilling to accept progress until they see long-term results.

“Every year they say 'we have killed these Taliban commanders,' but every year the violence increases. They are just destroying the homes and gardens and shops of people. They are not killing Taliban,” says Hekmatullah Popal, a shopkeeper who lives in Arghandab.

Security in north is key to long-term progress

While coalition and Afghan officials are working to ensure that this time is different, increasing the number of government officials in the area, the Taliban have responded by opening up new fronts in the north where the coalition presence is thin.

Of the 46 international combat battalions currently in Afghanistan, 42 are stationed either in the south or the east, leaving much room for the Taliban to operate in the north. In a recent interview with ABC News, top commander Gen. David Petraeus acknowledged this problem, saying it could prolong the fighting.

And 23 leading academics, aid workers, and journalists wrote in an open letter to President Obama this week that, “Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement."

Although the Taliban admit to suffering heavy casualties this past summer, fighters also say that they have not lost anyone who cannot be replaced, and that the prospect of martyrdom is a strong recruitment tool they will tap this winter.

“We had a very good fighting season this year,” says Ihsan, a low-level Taliban commander in Kandahar City. He adds that international forces have exaggerated their successes and downplayed their losses saying, “ISAF does not want to admit these kinds of things because it will make their countrymen sad.”

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