First came the nightly rocket bombardments, targeting abandoned mud houses about 30 miles southwest of Kandahar City, where Taliban insurgents stored 82mm antitank guns, grenade launchers, and rifles, and where they made bombs and staged attacks on NATO and Afghan forces.
For weeks, NATO and Afghan commando units launched covert raids against Taliban leaders, shattering the insurgency's local command structure. So many commanders were killed that local tribal elders said even they weren't sure who was in charge of insurgent groups any more. The mishmash of vineyards, rivers, and marijuana fields in this slice of Kandahar Province is so easy to defend and so difficult to penetrate that militants and outlaws have sheltered here for as long as anyone can remember.
Then, last month, Afghan and US troops used the cover of night to storm the Horn of Panjwaii – an unruly spit of land posing the last direct threat to Kandahar City; southern Afghanistan's political center and the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Airborne assaults on October 15, 16, and 25 were the culmination of months of fighting in the city's western fringes. Three Afghan National Army battalions – more than 2,000 men – and three companies of US paratroopers rode in on helicopters to attack the cluster of villages of Mushan, Zangabad, and Taluqan, considered key to Kandahar.
"There was fighting – bullets, bullets – and everyone was trying to get out," says Mahmoud Dawood, a farmer who was caught up in the violence. Soldiers bound him and turned his house into a firing point, he continued, uncuffing him long enough to fill sandbags.
To the north, a US Army brigade – about 3,500 soldiers – had already swept into Zhari and Arghandab, rural districts that also served as staging grounds for militant attacks on Kandahar City.
All these maneuvers are part of an operation intended to scatter the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and provide breathing space for the West to better manage its exit strategy in 2011. The operation, called "Hamkari" (the Dari word for "togetherness"), is seen as the coalition's best chance to win control of Kandahar from the Taliban. Similar operations touted as more successful than previous efforts are ongoing in the Arghandab and Zhari districts, and in Malajat, a suburb of Kandahar City.
Why is Kandahar so important?
Kandahar has more political and cultural significance than perhaps anywhere else in the country. For centuries, Afghanistan's rulers have hailed from this patchwork of dense greenery and barren desert. It is home to the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the country's holiest sites. It's also one of the nation's most densely populated cities.
Kandahar was the de facto capital when the Taliban were in power, and is the insurgents' most cherished objective.
Anarchy and warlordism here quickly pushed inhabitants toward the Taliban when the movement emerged 16 years ago. Following 2001, marginalization of the villagers in Panjwaii, Zhari, and Arghandab districts by the ruling Zirak Durrani tribes fed the movement with recruits and leaders and contributed to the violence and lawlessness here that have undermined NATO efforts.
As US Army Brig. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges – until recently NATO's director of operations in southern Afghanistan – put it: "Kandahar City and its environs are the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity for the Pashtun belt" – the swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Pashtun ethnic group, the one most closely affiliated with the insurgency, resides. That's a main part of the reason NATO commanders consider the province the linchpin to winning over the country's "hearts and minds" and ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The trick of the Taliban
Hamkari is one of the few operations where the coalition has the benefit of the full weight of President Obama's troop surge, which saw America deploy 30,000 extra personnel to Afghanistan – there are some 6,900 NATO troops and 5,300 Afghan troops inside Kandahar. The US and NATO have more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. In Hodges's words, the coalition will "never have it any better." Yet for those troops in the Horn, the hard part has only just begun. As in nearly every place NATO has rolled into in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban retaliation in the shape of a brutal intimidation campaign is a near certainty.
"The trick of the Taliban," a villager from the Horn says, is this: "They flee the fighting. Then slowly, slowly they return." Asking not to be named for fear of reprisal, he added that everyone, "everywhere" was "scared [of] targeted killing."
The one thing that is certain in the murky, indefinite war that has now enveloped the Horn, is a Taliban campaign that eschews military confrontation and terrorizes civilians, say inhabitants, tribal elders, local journalists, researchers, government officials, and NATO troops.
The point of such terrorizing? To show that NATO and the Afghan government may prevail on the battlefield, but they cannot provide the security, governance, and justice that would underpin the state's political legitimacy, observers say.
Improving governance remains a NATO objective, but faced with little alternative to working with existing administration of one of the world's most corrupt nations, officials are now downplaying this component of the campaign.
The hardest part: establishing security
Defeating the Taliban militarily is one thing. But success in southern Afghanistan, and thus the rest of the country, will depend far more on the coalition's ability to protect Kandaharis from Taliban threats and terror tactics – and transforming the government into something worth supporting.
Taliban "kill elders, the officials, the doctors, the engineers," says Abdul Haq, an Achekzai tribal elder who lives in the Horn. "This will put pressure on the people. Last year they killed many people in Panjwaii district, and the government couldn't stop this killing."
Rubbing his cropped gray hair and speaking softly, Mr. Haq recalled the murder of a teenage boy who had joined the police. The Taliban "had spies within the government who [sold him out], and after questioning him and hearing out his story, they killed him" in the mulberry grove where he had gone to pick fruit. "It was the third time they had arrested him. He was 17."
Even in Kandahar City, which is nominally under government control, Taliban assassinations of authority figures have proven extremely effective. Kandahar's deputy mayor was gunned down earlier this year, and his successor met the same fate. A senior warden at Kandahar jail was killed in a drive-by shooting on Nov. 6. The deputy head of the provincial adult literacy department was shot two days before.
Although exact figures are hard to come by, local media have reported more than 600 local government vacancies following a string of murders. The fact that empty posts outnumber assassinated officials is evidence that the fear campaign is working.
How to keep 'ghosts' away
As troops prepared for their final air assault on the Horn last month, US Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, one of the most senior NATO officers in Afghanistan, quizzed Afghan commanders at a vantage point overlooking the Horn on how they planned to stop the insurgents – known locally as "ghosts"– from sneaking back into the Horn and terrorizing inhabitants.
"These operations you've been doing are going very well … the challenge is, after that, how do we continue to provide security for the people?" he asked. No one answered.
"What we need [to] do with every asset we have out there," he continued, "is figure out how to make it bigger than it is, so that the people say, 'OK, we'll be protected.'"
Creating that sense of security has largely proved elusive for the Afghan and NATO security forces. In Marjah, in neighboring Helmand Province, a US Special Forces captain said that persuading people whose chief motivation is survival to stick their necks out was – not surprisingly – difficult.
"The Taliban are quick to take out tribal leaders," said Captain Matt, whose full name can't be disclosed under NATO press rules.
In one of the most notable examples of the Taliban targeting tribal strongmen, Abdul Hakim Jan, a powerful figure from Arghandab district (Kandahar City's northern gateway) was one of 80 spectators killed when a massive car bomb detonated at a dog fight two years ago. His murder, which came soon after the death of Mullah Naqib, another Kandahar politician and elder from of the Alokozai tribe, signaled the fall of Arghandab to the Taliban.
Captain Matt said the same phenomenon was visible in Marjah. "This place has largely been stripped of its leadership.... We try to tell people that if you want yourselves to be represented then you need to do x, y, and z. We try to emphasize that, hey, it's your leaders," he said. "We want to emphasize that, not impose it."
But progress is slow, with potential leaders choosing to remain in the shadows. "A man with a gun rules 100," Matt says. "The coalition doesn't rule by fear – [and] a carrot doesn't do so much."
Tribal wars even more fierce
The Taliban have also been quick to exploit tribal enmities. When NATO and Afghan forces swept into the Horn in 2006, in one of three previous campaigns to rid the place of insurgents, the arrival of Afghan Border Police from a traditional rival of the predominant Noorzai tribe sparked such fierce fighting that it made the struggle between pro- and antigovernment forces look tame. By backing the Noorzais, the Taliban bought themselves an entire tribal block.
Local history is also a factor, especially in the Horn, which has traditionally supported a lot of illegal activity. Criminal networks existed here long before the coup in 1973, the communist countercoup in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979. Government writ didn't really extend this far, and so the militants filled the vacuum.
Residents of Zangabad, a bucolic slice of orchards and irrigation ditches that Afghan troops stormed on Oct. 16, claim there was a Taliban court there, dispensing swift if brutal justice, and reportedly in direct competition with Kandahar City courts, which are perceived as sluggish, expensive, and corrupt.
Most locals dislike either option
Yet a major factor in the outcome of Kandahar, say top commanders, is the Afghan government's ability to deliver. That's the Achilles heel of NATO efforts to stabilize the country.
Although villagers who have lived under the Taliban's austere sway have little love for the insurgents, they are not altogether convinced by the other side's offer. Tales of police arranging for kidnappings, private militias snatching land, and government officials extorting civilians are commonplace in Kandahar.
"One man says he likes the Taliban," explains Haji Abdul Karim, an elder from the Noorzai tribe and an old acquaintance of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. "One man says he likes the government. But the majority hate both."
In contrast to earlier NATO promises to sideline "malign actors" (also known as the Kandahar mafia), military commanders in southern Afghanistan are taking a new approach and have now quietly dropped their opposition to the region's power brokers, and instead have reconciled themselves to working with them.
The alienation factor this tactic creates is undeniable: "There are many warlords in the government working to acquire money, not bring security," says Haji Mohammad Zahir, a businessman from the Zhari district. People join the insurgents "because of the government's corruption, bribes, and extortion," he says.
Still, the security in Kandahar is a big step toward allowing locals to even consider such issues Hodges says: "There is a presence of security that is a lot more prevalent and reassuring than at any time in the past."
•David Francis contributed reporting to this story.