US commanders are taking more cues from Afghans

Troops are helping create a security buffer around Kandahar to facilitate political and economic reforms.

Kandahar's governor, Yusuf Pashtun, puts on his glasses, leans forward, and scrutinizes photographs of a huge weapons cache discovered by US troops last week in none other than the city prison.

Staring back at him, in full color, are thousands of 107 mm rockets, grenades, mines, rifles, and components of improvised explosive devices neatly stacked in four large rooms.

"Some of these rockets are unstable, and if something sets this off there would be a very big explosion," Lt. Col. Joe Dichairo of the 10th Mountain Division says to the governor. "Sir, it's your decision, but we're very concerned."

It's a politically delicate moment, one that typifies the dilemma US forces face as they strive to bolster security in this former Taliban stronghold without appearing to encroach on the authority of Afghan leaders.

The discovery of the volatile munitions could not have come at a more sensitive time - as southern Afghan leaders met here to chose delegates for this month's constitutional loya jirga, or national assembly, and voter registration was getting under way.

Governor Pashtun looks up. "All of these should be destroyed," he concludes, as coffee was served.

"So, you recommend, sir?" Colonel Dichairo prompted.

"I don't recommend, I ask for it!" says the governor, agreeing to write an order putting US forces in charge of overseeing the demolition and insuring no Afghans kept what he called "souvenirs."

The episode marks just one example of a complex US-led military operation in and around Kandahar - one aimed less at hunting down Taliban militants and more at creating a security buffer for the emerging Afghan government and economic reconstruction. The effort is part of the broader Operation Avalanche, described by Dichairo as a "full-court press" of US military actions across southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

"You have to apply the right type of force," Dichairo explains. "Engaging the enemy, unless needed, is not success" in Kandahar, he says. "We want to see the number of [UN workers] go through the roof - that's success."

Still, Taliban attacks aimed at undermining stability and discrediting the Kandahar government and its foreign allies remain a serious concern, provincial officials say.

Taliban insurgents in the region are trying "desperately" to recruit suicide bombers to carry out "urban terrorism," Pashtun says, noting they have so far failed. "These people can create huge damage, and that's what they want - they want the impact," he says.

In the past month, a bicycle bomb, a grenade attack, and a car bomb in Kandahar have wounded more than 20 people, including two local United Nations workers and two US soldiers. The Taliban has also put out bounties on aid workers, US military officials say.

"The bomb outside the UN building was a wake-up call," says Lt. Col. Bob Duffy of the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade, which opened a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in downtown Kandahar Thursday. The PRT is designed as a protective umbrella for a wide range of development projects by military and government agencies, both coalition and Afghan. Ultimately, the goal is to reach out from Kandahar to disadvantaged communities with a "hub-and-spoke" organization.

Colonel Duffy says the recent spurt of violence underscores how development groups need to cooperate, and advises them of when the PRT will bring a military presence to remote districts of southern Afghanistan. Still, while some aid organizations say it is too dangerous for them to operate around Kandahar, they resist any hint of association with US forces, saying that it could undermine their neutrality.

While Kandahar authorities are working to strengthen security in the region, they volunteer that provincial police and military forces remain underpaid, largely uneducated, and undisciplined.

The province of sweeping desert broken by mud-walled villages and abrupt mountains has 1.2 million people and 1,500 police, says police chief Mohammed Hasham. "We need a lot more [police]," he says, sipping tea in a carpeted office. Vehicles and cellphones are also lacking, he says. Policemen only "sometimes" receive their meager monthly pay of $19 and as a result, attrition plagues the force, which Mr. Hasham calls "completely uneducated."

A Kandahar police academy has opened that will train 300 to 400 officers every two months, although illiteracy remains a stumbling block to that effort.

Meanwhile, US military forces have taken steps to bolster security - both to prevent disruption of major events such as voter registration and religious pilgrimages, as well as in response to sporadic violence such as the UN bombing.

Yet political sensitivities as well as a desire to empower Afghan authorities means that US infantrymen and military police play largely a behind-the-scenes supporting role in Kandahar. "We made a conscious decision not to surge infantry soldiers into the center of Kandahar" during recent political meetings, says Dichairo.

Instead, small contingents of military police carry out patrols of key locations, while leaving the bulk of the job to Afghan uniformed and plainclothes police.

"It's a double-edged sword," says Capt. Michelle Meier of the 10th Military Police Company. "Do you go in and look like you are occupying the city and take away the authority the police have now, or do you let them handle it?"

Commanding an armored Humvee through Kandahar's narrow streets, cluttered with donkey carts and ornate motorized rickshaws, Staff Sgt. Paula Jennings says most Afghans seem to welcome her patrols, although a few have thrown rocks or eggs at her gunner.

So far, the combination of Afghan security forces and the US military has prevented major violence from disrupting the political process in Kandahar - but some residents remain uneasy.

"On the first day [of the provincial loya jurga] the police chief received a call from a friend who said someone shooting from a speeding car had killed five people," says Pashtun. The police chief rushed to the scene, but found nothing. Later, his friend apologized and said it was only a rumor his mother heard at the market.

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