Wednesday, August 27, 2008
A Troubling Look Inside Kandahar
The Taliban are gradually retaking Kandahar City, the capital of Kandahar province, Canada's remit under the NATO-led, International Security Assistance Force, ISAF.
The map above shows you the districts of Kandahar province, a couple of which you may find familiar - Panjwai and Spin Boldak. That's where Canada's combat troops seem to do the lion's share of their fighting. The other districts you might never heard of before but, then again, there are some pretty big areas of Kandahar province where we don't maintain a presence because we're so grossly understrength.
In June the Taliban launched a stunning attack on Kandahar's prison, killing the guards and freeing about 900-prisoners including about 350-Taliban. The impact of that hit and run raid is still being felt among the people of Kandahar City.
>The New York Times reports that, since June, confidence in the Karazi government has cratered:
"The prison break, on June 13, was a spectacular propaganda coup for the Taliban not only in freeing their comrades and flaunting their strength, but also in exposing the catastrophic weakness of the Afghan government, its army and the police, as well as the international forces trying to secure Kandahar.
In the weeks since the prison break, security has further deteriorated in this southern Afghan city, once the de facto capital of the Taliban, that has become a renewed front line in the battle against the radical Islamist movement. The failure of the American-backed Afghan government to protect Kandahar has rippled across the rest of the country and complicated the task of NATO forces, which have suffered more deaths here this year than at any time since the 2001 invasion.
A rising chorus of complaints equally scathing about the failings of the government can be heard around the country. The collapsing confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai is so serious that if the Taliban had wanted to, they could have seized control of the city of Kandahar on the night of the prison break, one Western diplomat in Kabul said.
The only reason they did not was they did not expect the government and the NATO reaction to be so weak, he said.
In fact, interviews with local officials and other people here who witnessed the bold prison break and its aftermath show that the level of government organization and security was woefully inadequate around what was clearly a high-priority target for the Taliban.
There were only 10 guards at the prison that night and about 1,400 inmates, said Col. Abdullah Bawar, the new head of the prison. In the immediate aftermath of the prison break, terrified local residents closed their shops and the town was silent for days as people braced themselves for more violence, including a possible attack on the city.
“We don’t know exactly if the Taliban is powerful, we have heard that,” said Gul Muhammad, 35, a shopkeeper who witnessed the assault on the prison and was even thrown off his feet by the blast. “But when we see this kind of attack, it seems they are very powerful."
Haji Muhammad Musa Hotak, a member of Parliament from Wardak Province, near the capital, Kabul, warned that the gap between the people and the government had grown dire.
So wide is it, in fact, the situation reminds him of the end of the Communist era, when support for the government of the Soviet-backed president, Najibullah, began collapsing under the onslaught of the mujahedeen, who had waged a 13-year resistance in the name of Islam against successive Communist rulers.
The Taliban attack has also shaken local confidence in the international forces here and exposed the difficult situation of the understaffed Canadian troops in Kandahar, who have lost 90 soldiers in the last two and a half years in the province trying to contain an increasingly virulent Taliban insurgency.
On the night of the prison break, Canadian troops based in the town as part of the NATO-led international Security Assistance Force were busy dealing with a number of roadside bombs planted, apparently in a coordinated plan to divert the attention of security forces from the attack.
The failings make people wonder what the foreign troops are really doing in Afghanistan, said Mr. Daoud, the shopkeeper. “The Canadians are here, but things are getting worse and worse.”
The core threat in this is in the loss of popular support for the central government. That lies at the heart of any insurgent's strategy. Undermine confidence in the government and its forces and you can cause popular support for the government to collapse. Once the government loses the support of its people, the counterinsurgency forces defending the government come to be seen, not as protectors, but as oppressors unnecessarily dragging out their war and inflicting suffering on the people.
Incidents like the weekend's American air bombardment said, by the Karzai government, UN observers, the provincial governor and the locals to have killed some 90-civilians, 60 of them children, acquire the significance of the Boston Massacre. Like the mythical Boston Massacre, it's a great propaganda tool for the insurgency, one that has legs and traction.
Our military support is crucial to the Kabul government but more important is the support of the Afghan people. Once popular support is lost our troops become not the defenders of the people but the bodyguards of the Karzai government.
And this reveals where trying to fight a military war in response to the insurgents' political war is all but doomed to failure. The Taliban can't engage us in a military showdown. They don't have the numbers. They don't have the weaponry. They can, however, undermine their rival political force, the central government, by inflicting a thousand small cuts that the military force is powerless to prevent. An ineffective government coupled with government corruption, the drug barons, the warlords - all of these things work in favour of the insurgency. Helicopter gunships and Leopard tanks are irrelevant to this.
Kandahar City isn't an isolated case. Many reports over the past few months reveal that the Taliban are closing in on Kabul. They won't try to capture Kabul but they don't have to. They merely need to cut the vulnerable ring road, surround the city and choke off its communications, transportation and trade routes.
What about the time factor? That, too, is on the insurgents' side. They know that Westerners expect to see tangible victories and that their patience for results is limited. When their forces spend years fighting an unwinnable war and steadily lose ground, people at home want an end to it. Algeria, French IndoChina, Vietnam, and Afghanistan under the Soviets stand as examples of what tends to happen.