Kandahar will be the most important test thus far of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy of increased resources and a thorough counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Though it will be a "process" rather than one pitched battle, success or failure in the southern Afghan province — a historical Taliban stronghold — will determine operational momentum well into 2011, when the first of the U.S. troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing. The Taliban are treating it like a major battle, attacking the boardwalk in Kandahar air base during a sophisticated operation over the weekend.
If Kandahar is show time, then Marjah has been the dress rehearsal. It is not going well. The Marjah operation has not been successful in rooting out Taliban elements, which continue to terrorize the population and undermine the Afghan government that was supposed to take root in the ineptly named "government in a box" experiment. It is clear that coalition forces, while seemingly able to clear out fighters during the initial battle, cannot fully eradicate the deep roots of the insurgency. As Carlotta Gall, one of the best Western reporters in Afghanistan, noted last week, the Taliban "are village men who never left the area although they quit fighting soon after the military operation. Gradually they found a stealthier way of operating, moving around in small groups, often by motorbike or on foot." Rather than merely waiting until the time is ripe to resurge, then, local fighters must be convinced to throw in their lots with the Afghan government. However, lack of security, poor performance of the Afghan armed forces, and the slow pace of government projects have undermined the credibility of the McChrystal strategy (and its partners in the Afghan government) and acted as force multipliers for the Taliban’s intimidation tactics. Though still in progress, the Marjah offensive — a "bleeding ulcer" — leaves much to be desired.
With the limited timetable of the troop surge coming up quickly, Gen. McChrystal cannot afford another Marjah experience in Kandahar, a more complex and significant stretch of land. Already there appears to be handwringing over the operations; McClatchy reports that "key military operations have been delayed until the fall, efforts to improve local government are having little impact and a Taliban assassination campaign has brought a sense of dread to Kandahar’s dusty streets." In addition, NATO forces will have to deal with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s inscrutable half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. If the West chooses to make Wali Karzai’s presence a sticking point, it risks losing the support of Hamid Karzai’s government, who stated on his visit to DC two weeks ago, "the issue of my brother in Kandahar… is resolved as it stands now." But, as Steve Coll assessed, "There is no question but that A.W.K. is the most visible, most intractable symbol of the corruption and corporate self-interest of the Karzai government in southern Afghanistan. The poison A.W.K. has come to represent spills into everything." Clearly, accepting Ahmed Wali Karzai’s pernicious influence is not a solution either.
With an abbreviated schedule as dictated by the July 2011 timetable, there is little room for tinkering. In order to reverse the Taliban’s momentum before the beginning of the withdrawal of the surge troops, the Kandahar operation must show results quickly. Kandahar’s complicating factors, including its position as the spiritual center of the Afghan Taliban movement, make this very difficult to accomplish. President Obama and Gen. McChrystal may have to accept a stilted, frustrating sense of progress there that may not reverse the momentum that the Taliban accrued during years of neglect. Failure in Kandahar, where the Taliban appear to be making good on their pledge to launch a spring offensive, would force military planners to extend the timeline of the surge or accept a sub-optimal outcome in Kandahar and try to work around it. On the political side, failure could either delay the onset of reconciliation talks or force the talks onto U.S. and NATO allies without the position of strength they had envisioned. Marjah’s ongoing troubles show that the Kandahar operation will probably not go as planned. Hopefully, contrary to reporting, there is in fact a Plan B (plan C, perhaps?) or the coalition will have to do this all again next year, with less political capital and fewer military resources.
Jonathan Wallace is assistant to the president at the New America Foundation, and an incoming masters student in security studies at Georgetown University.