Small bands of elite American Special Operations forces have been operating with increased intensity for several weeks in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city, picking up or picking off insurgent leaders to weaken the Taliban in advance of major operations, senior administration and military officials say.
The looming battle for the spiritual home of the Taliban is shaping up as the pivotal test of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, including how much the United States can count on the country’s leaders and military for support, and whether a possible increase in civilian casualties from heavy fighting will compromise a strategy that depends on winning over the Afghan people.
It will follow a first offensive, into the hamlet of Marja, that is showing mixed results. And it will require the United States and its Afghan partners to navigate a battleground that is not only much bigger than Marja but also militarily, politically and culturally more complex.
Two months after the Marja offensive, Afghan officials acknowledge that the Taliban have in some ways retaken the momentum there, including killing or beating locals allied with the central government and its American backers. “We are still waiting to see the outcome in Marja,” said Shaida Abdali, the deputy Afghan national security adviser. “If you are planning for operations in Kandahar, you must show success in Marja. You have to be able to point to something. Now you don’t have a good example to point to there.”
The battle for Kandahar has become the make-or-break offensive of the eight-and-half-year war. The question is whether military force, softened with appeals to the local populace, can overcome a culture built on distrust of outsiders, including foreign forces and even neighboring tribes.
More than a dozen senior military and civilian officials directly involved in the Kandahar operation agreed to discuss the outlines of the offensive on the condition that they not be identified discussing a pending operation. But in general, the military under Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the senior American and allied commander, has been willing to talk about operations in advance to try to scare off insurgents and convince the local population that their government and its allies are moving to increase security.
'Contested battle space'
Instead of the quick punch that opened the Marja offensive, the operation in Kandahar, a sprawling urban area, is designed to be a slowly rising tide of military action. That is why the opening salvos of the offensive are being carried out in the shadows by Special Operations forces.
“Large numbers of insurgent leadership based in and around Kandahar have been captured or killed,” said one senior American military officer directly involved in planning the Kandahar offensive. But, he acknowledged, “it’s still a contested battle space.”
Senior American and allied commanders say the goal is to have very little visible American presence inside Kandahar city itself, with that effort carried by Afghan Army and police units.
Stepped up bombings and attacks against foreign contractors, moderate religious leaders and public officials are viewed as proof that Taliban insurgents are trying to send a message to Afghan tribal leaders not to cooperate with the American offensive. Last Monday night, gunmen killed Azizullah Yarmal, the deputy mayor of Kandahar, as he prayed in a mosque in the city.
American and NATO officials are not eager to speak publicly about one of their biggest challenges: the effect of the continued presence of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s brother and head of the Kandahar provincial council, whose suspected links with drug dealers and insurgents have prompted some Western officials to say that corruption and governance problems have led locals to be more accepting of the Taliban.
And while allied officials say they will be relying heavily on Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the city, that same tactic has so far produced mixed success in Marja, where Marine Corps officers said they ended up doing much of the hard fighting.
To shape the arrangement of allied forces ahead of the fight, conventional troops have begun operations outside of Kandahar, in a series of provincial districts that ring the city. American and allied officers predict heavy pockets of fighting in those belts. Kandahar, according to a senior military officer, is “infested” with insurgents, but not overrun as was Marja.
The plan has echoes of the troop “surge” in Iraq, when additional American forces were sent to attack the insurgents who were operating in the belts outside the Iraqi capital, planning attacks, constructing roadside bombs and launching assaults.
Other similarities to Iraq include the plans to woo local tribal leaders in and around Kandahar, similar to the way soldiers and Marines in Anbar Province courted the tribal Sunni sheiks in Iraq to fight insurgents. The United States and its allies in the Afghan government will try to unite local tribal leaders in and around Kandahar to turn in Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. As in Iraq, officials said, the strategy will include monetary incentives in the form of economic development money for local leaders and tribal officials who support the government’s security efforts.
As the military pace increases, the centerpiece of the offensive’s political effort will be a series of “shuras” — Afghan-style town hall meetings between tribal leaders and government officials to try to convince locals that they will get a better deal from the government than from Taliban administration. The aim of the shuras, said Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO civilian in Afghanistan, will be “firstly to get their support for security operations to go ahead, and secondly, to identify their needs for security, governance and development.”
The next step after the security operations and the shuras will be to roll out squads of Afghan civil administrators with Western advisers, who, in theory, will try to bring government services and resources to districts. This may be the most difficult hurdle, since there are doubts among Western officials about the ability of the Afghan government to supply an ample number of effective and qualified civil administrators.
Rather than civil assistance, many residents fear only military action. Already in Kandahar, many locals view Afghan and NATO checkpoints and convoys as great a danger on the roads as Taliban bombs and checkpoints.
“Instead of bringing people close to the government,” cautioned Haji Mukhtar, a Kandahar Provincial Council member, more combat “will cause people to stay further from the government and hate the foreigners more.”
While the overt parts of the Kandahar offensive will begin in coming weeks — several dozen platoon and company-size outposts for American and allied forces have already been constructed in recent weeks along the approaches to Kandahar — military officials warn that securing the city could take months. Military commanders say their goal is to show concrete results by late summer or early fall, in advance of Ramadan and national parliamentary elections.
While the officials stressed that they will limit civilian casualties, an increase in operations will put more residents in the cross-fire. The fighting already under way in the province is putting at risk the sharp drop in civilian casualties that followed General McChrystal’s orders to strenuously avoid them. Recent episodes of civilian casualties, including an attack on a bus, have undermined trust for NATO operations.
Officers already are also preparing for a spike in attacks with improvised explosives. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has traveled to NATO capitals to offer allies access to American-made armored transport vehicles and a host of technology and surveillance measures to find and defuse roadside bombs.
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Kabul.
This article, “Elite U.S. units step up drive in Kandahar before attack,’” first appeared in The New York Times.