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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”
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.