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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Campaign to push Taliban out of Kandahar has 7 months to succeed

May 11 article in The Australian comes via Afghan Conflict Monitor ...

THE campaign to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar province has until the end of the year to succeed if it is to capitalise on maximum troop numbers and political unity, Nato commanders and Western diplomats told The Times.

"Our mission is to show irreversible momentum by the end of 2010 - that's the clock I'm using," Brigadier-General Frederick Hodges, the US Director of Operations in southern Afghanistan, said. "We'll never have more capacity than we have by late summer 2010. We'll never have it any better."

The joint Nato-Afghan campaign - codenamed Hamkari, which is the Dari word for co-operation - will use the biggest number of troops and police in the country yet. Thousands of Afghan National Army soldiers and paramilitaries are to combine with the existing coalition force in Kandahar as well as additional units from among the 13,000 troops being sent in the second phase of the US surge.

The military strategy involves combining regular US soldiers and special forces with Afghan police and paramilitaries to establish 32 posts around Kandahar city at every access point along the key route through the province. Afghan army units and coalition troops will then attempt to clear the Taliban from the outlying districts of Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwayi.

President Karzai and Western commanders have avoided calling Hamkari an operation and have emphasised its political and administrative focus. Kandahar is the Taliban's traditional heartland and its population has become disaffected with the nepotism, ineptitude and corruption that have characterised the local government.

"I'm not going to talk about a D-day or an H-hour or even, for that matter, military operations," said Major-General Nick Carter, the British officer commanding coalition forces in the south. "This is much more about getting the population to feel secure in the hands of its own government and its own security forces so that it then begins to work... as an informing population, so that it denies the insurgent the freedom of movement to come in and intimidate and mount `spectaculars'."

The first phase of Hamkari began a fortnight ago and the strategy will include measures such as registering weapons, vehicles, hotels, madrassas and seminaries. Western officials are keen to have a broader range of village and tribal representation in the shuras, or councils, which communicate with officials. They are also keen to bolster the authority of Tooryalai Wesa, the Governor, at the expense of the city's current strongman, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the half-brother of the President.

Nato commanders estimate that up to 75 per cent of Taliban fighters in Kandahar province, most of whom are concentrated in the three districts targeted by the military campaign, are locals who may reintegrate if they are offered the right incentives. The commanders are also encouraged by the absence of foreign fighters. "We've seen no hardcore al-Qa'ida links here," a senior Nato intelligence officer told The Times. "Zero al-Qa'ida."

Yet Nato officers know that they have a tough deadline. By the end of the year troop numbers will decline and Dutch forces will withdraw. In November political attention in Washington will be focused on the midterm elections and critics of the war will remind President Obama of his pledge to start pulling out combat troops in 2011.

"If there's a change in the game and it looks like we can run the table then Obama will gain some political oxygen," noted a senior Western diplomat involved closely with the Hamkari campaign. "But if we can't deliver by Christmas... people at home will remind the President of the deal (to begin the withdrawal of US combat troops in 2011)."

Apart from the need for evidence of success, Nato planners have several other concerns. Officers note that it took the Afghan Government too long to put ministry level representatives in two districts of Helmand that were cleared of the Taliban during Operation Moshtarak this year, and question how it will fare in Kandahar, which is four times the size.

Although the Western officials are keen for the Taliban fighters to reintegrate, as yet there is no plan from the Government to encourage this. "There has to be a carrot at the end of the stick if these fighters are to reintegrate," one officer said, "but as yet we don't see one from Kabul."

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