Even before the overnight suicide attack in Kandahar that killed three US soldiers and five Afghan civilians, the view from patients and doctors at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar – the only trauma center for four of Afghanistan’s most violent provinces – was that the war isn’t going well.
Doctors last week said they’ve been flooded with Afghan casualties in recent months, and that surgeons have been forced to keep back-to-back 24-hour shifts, as the US-led surge designed to improve security and living conditions for Afghans continues to build.
In the past 24 hours, eight US troops have been killed in Afghanistan’s south, where the bulk of the US surge into Afghanistan has been deployed and where Marines, Afghan soldiers, and policemen have been fighting in the fields and irrigation ditches of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
'We're all in a lot more danger than we were'
But so far, the results in the eyes of Afghans have been scant, with many in the city and its surroundings saying they’ve been put in greater danger by the effort.
“The Taliban have been around us for years, but all they ever asked for was a little food or water when they were around,” Hekmatullah, a young farmer, says from his hospital bed. He received a leg wound when a joint US-Afghan patrol got into a firefight with the Taliban across the field he was tending in Zabul province. “We’re all in a lot more danger than we were.”
That’s a common sentiment across much of the south. Last week, a delegation of tribal elders trooped to the provincial council chaired by Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, to complain about a NATO-built police checkpoint in their neighborhood, which they said was putting their families in danger and disrupting their lives.
Mr. Karzai said he’d look into it with NATO, but explained that the checkpoint “was for the security of the whole city.”
Slow and steady progress?
US Marines and Afghan forces continue to erect checkpoints and outposts along the main highways leading to the provincial capital, which a US officer says are improving intelligence on key Taliban figures and allowing NATO and Afghan troops to take their targets more often than not alive.
“We’re slowly bringing the roads under control,” says the officer. “Pretty soon, they won’t be able to move where they want.”
While he and other officers paint a picture of “slow and steady progress,” the fact remains that large numbers of Taliban are already in the city, and urban combat to root them out is off the table for now, since it carries the likelihood of significant civilian casualties.
As Tuesday night’s attack on an Afghan police headquarters made clear, the Taliban is also well-blended with the farmers of the countryside and secreted within the major towns.
NATO said the police headquarters – in the middle of Kandahar city and not far from the bazaar where locals say assassinations by the Taliban have become almost a daily occurrence – was hit by a suicide car bomb and a group of Taliban with rifles, before foreign and Afghan forces drove off the assault. Elsewhere in the south, four US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb and a fifth soldier was killed by small arms fire.
Last week, a police post near the main Kabul Bank branch in the city was lit up with a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire. A 15-minute firefight ensued. There were no casualties in the brief engagement and the attackers escaped.
One local didn’t seem impressed: “That’s the third time that post has been hit in the past couple of months.”
Gains expected by end summer
US officers say rising casualties are an unavoidable consequence of the current offensive, which they expect to demonstrate security gains for Afghans by the end of the summer.
For Rasul Muratsundi, the deputy head of surgery at Mirwais hospital, those gains can’t come soon enough. Dr. Murastundi says his team is now doing about 30 emergency surgeries a day – a five-fold increase compared to five years ago, when the Taliban was just beginning to reassert itself.
A day earlier he’d done a 24-hour shift. He went home at midnight and was called back to the hospital before 8 the next morning. In 24 hours, he says, 10 dead men had been brought to the hospital (which doubles as an informal morgue). All were gunshot victims.
“In the emergency room, we usually shut down and do one big cleaning a week, on Sundays,” he explains. “This week we had to do another cleaning on Tuesday.”
Increased violence means less trust of the international forces
Amid the increase in violence in the region, many say they are losing trust in the government and international forces here, which emphasizes that the clock is ticking on the current hearts and minds strategy.
“I came home because I believed at first that we’d be getting something out of the new government,” says Rahmatullah, a laborer at a vast housing development on the outskirts of the city that is partially owned by President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Mahmoud.
Rahmatullah, who asked that his full name not be used, returned to Afghanistan in 2004 after a decade living as a refugee in Pakistan, where he had a small shop. Since then, he says his savings and hope have dwindled. “They built schools, but didn’t put teachers in them. The Taliban came back eventually. Now people are getting murdered if they speak out – both against the Taliban and the warlords.”
Warlords, who ruled after the Soviets and before the rise of the Taliban, have returned with a vengeance since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, adding another layer of complexity to the mission in the south. Sometimes, local NATO allies have even worse reputations than the Taliban.
Hekmatullah, the farmer at Mirwais Hospital, says that he was probably shot by the American side in the firefight across his field.
But after he was shot, a group of Hazara police men – a different ethnic group from the majority Pashtuns in the area – working with the US forces got their hands on him first, and started beating him and dragging him across the ground. From the hospital bed, he held up both his arms, showing deep gashes.
“The Hazara’s treated me like filth,” he says, pointing out that he is not particularly angry at the US troops involved. “They got me medicine, they took me out in a helicopter,” he says. “I wouldn’t be in this bed now if the Americans weren’t there.