On a recent patrol convoy that lumbered across the barren, rocky fields of Malajat, an area located on flatlands on the eastern outskirts of Kandahar City, Afghanistan, soldiers from the US Army's Charlie Company spotted a D-cell battery hidden under a pile of rocks – a telltale sign of an improvised explosive device, or IED.
They began to backtrack from the dirt field. A soldier called in the field's location to headquarters; a team with anti-IED equipment would presumably visit the field soon. On that day, Charlie Company emerged unscathed, but situations just like that occur daily across Kandahar, sometimes with deadly outcomes.
"You never know if today is going to be your day," says Lt. Mark Anderson, Charlie Company platoon leader.
IEDs have become a primary threat to security in this part of Afghanistan. In the months after President Obama's summer troop surge, coalition forces pushed the Taliban out of Kandahar and have begun labeling as a success the offensive in Kandahar City, as well as those in the nearby districts of Arghandab, Zhari, and Panjwai. They say the level of violence in the city has decreased and the areas outside of the city are largely under coalition control.
But a number of sizeable obstacles, including IEDs, remain hidden beneath the surface here.
According to recent reports, US officials in Washington are dubious about the prospect of Kandahar’s stability continuing into spring 2011, when the fighting season resumes after the cold winter months. Officials point to an ineffective Afghan police force, poor governance, Taliban sympathizers, and Taliban IEDs as barriers to long-term stability in Kandahar.
While the US has spent billions of dollars on high-tech strategies, including electronic countermeasures that prevent signals from reaching explosives and low-tech methods like bomb-sniffing dogs, even the most advanced anti-IED technologies are not 100 percent effective, nor do all troops have the basic means to detect bombs.
According to icasualties.org, an independent website that tracks deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs were responsible for 60 percent of all coalition fatalities so far this year. In fact, according to the site, IEDs caused 33 of the 50 American deaths in Afghanistan in October.
During a recent interview with the Monitor and in a subsequent tour of the Kandahar battlefield, Gen. Ben Hodges, then the highest-ranking US officer in Kandahar (he was replaced Nov. 2), touted the success of the summer 2010 offensive and praised the 30,000 troops added to the region by President Obama earlier this year.
In a later conversation, however, Hodges added that continued success in the region was dependent upon Afghans filling the void created by the offensive with government institutions and a strong police force and army. Without this, Hodges said, and with US troop withdrawals coming next summer, a favorable outcome will be difficult.
“None of these [recent gains] will matter if the enemy comes back in June at traditional levels of violence,” he said. “That’s exactly what they’ll do if we fail to ... improve Afghan” governance and security forces.
Visiting areas around Kandahar City showed just how large a challenge remains. For instance, there are plans to build a municipal building in Malajat to provide a space for sub-district governors to conduct official business. But as of late October, only holes for the foundation had been dug; the building was nowhere near completion.
The neighborhood was recently cleared of the Taliban but remains sympathetic to insurgents. Without a municipal building, there is no symbol of government authority in Malajat, an area known to sympathize with the Taliban.
The Afghan police also don’t appear to be prepared to take the lead from the Americans. As Hodges conceded, they are undertrained, largely illiterate, and appear unwilling to conduct routine police work.