The South Asia Channel

Is Kandahar FUBAR? An AfPak Channel debate

The following is an exchange between AfPak Channel contributing experts in response to a query based on yesterday’s Wall Street Journal headline “Taliban now winning.” Gilles Dorronsoro: The Taliban have won in the Pashtun belt; the foreign forces are perceived as alien and threatening. I am recently back from Kandahar, and my feeling is that ...


The following is an exchange between AfPak Channel contributing experts in response to a query based on yesterday’s Wall Street Journal headline “Taliban now winning.”

Gilles Dorronsoro: The Taliban have won in the Pashtun belt; the foreign forces are perceived as alien and threatening. I am recently back from Kandahar, and my feeling is that the coalition forces are in the same position than the Soviets in the 80s. The Taliban are mostly LOCAL. It is not possible to “protect the population” against the Taliban; they are part of the population and the more we fight the more they are popular.

The failure in Helmand (yes, the offensive has already failed) means it is impossible to control the countryside. Even 50,000 reinforcements will not change that. More troops in Kandahar are useless.

Since my last trip in April, the Taliban have made quick progress in the northeast (Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar) and northwest (Badghis, Herat, Ghor). To stop them in these provinces should be the absolute priority. The last German operation in Kunduz did not do that.

The Taliban, which have been dominant in the countryside (in the Pashtun belt), are now attacking the cities (Gardez, Khost, Pul-i Alam). So this must be the other priority: to secure the cities.

But it is impossible to do more than partially secure the cities in the Pashtun belt. Maybe it is not too late to stop the Taliban (or slow them) in the north, but I don’t think it is a priority for the U.S. military now, and more troops next year (since 2002, it is always “more troops next year”) will not change positively the situation.

Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, is an expert on Afghanistan, Turkey, and South Asia and the author of “The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan.”

Austin Long: I disagree with Gilles Dorronsoro. I was in Kandahar last month and got a very different impression.

The Taliban there are local, but the motives of local Taliban are not automatically the same as the motives of the Quetta Shura. They are about specific local grievances that can be addressed. This may be hard given that many of the grievances are against the Afghan government or parts of it, but it is not impossible.

Protecting the population is probably the wrong term. It should be “separating the insurgents from the population.” You can separate the population from insurgents living in it — though of course it is hard. This is the essence of community policing in the U.S. — working with the people to protect them from bad elements in the community.

Not all of Kandahar province is under Taliban sway. Spin Boldak district, which, being on the border with Pakistan should be easy prey, is not secure, but neither is it Taliban dominated. This is despite the low presence of ISAF (coalition) troops. Why? The local strongman, General Razziq of the Border Police, is effective at both managing local tribal grievances and fighting the Taliban. Sure, he is almost surely involved in smuggling, if not drugs, but that’s the price of doing business.

The Canadian effort in Dand district, the area around Kandahar, is also worth following. It is a focused, “oil-spot”-like approach to spread security and governance from Kandahar City outward, accepting that outlying districts with little population will be secondary.

Austin Long is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he teaches international security policy and strategic studies.

Gilles Dorronsoro: If you were in Kandahar last month, you probably noticed how difficult it is even in the city to go around outside the shahr-i naw, the new city. Not to mention the very high level of xenophobia there. The local system of power (which we are not in a position to change) is alienating most of the non-zirak tribes (the zirak being the three major tribes that have historically nominated Kandahari politics).

The strength of the Taliban is precisely that they are able to play with local grievances. How can you take back Panjwayi district now after the failure of the Canadians in 2006? Or the Arghandab Valley, where the Alkozai are more and more alienated from Wali Karzai and the government?

I don’t understand how you can think about separating the Taliban from the population in Helmand and Kandahar. How do you do that concretely? I have never seen a convincing plan on that matter (and everything has failed).

As you know, Spin Boldak is very particular due to the fact that the population is mostly refugees coming from different places (a very different place from the Spin Boldak of the 1990s). The main thing that keeps things together for now is the huge sums of money from contraband. It is an exception and locally described as such, not a model to be emulated elsewhere.

The Canadians are not a model either. After their 2006 offensive, the Taliban were back after just a few months. They have only two posts in Panjwayi and they are due to withdraw in a year or so. In addition, the so-called Dutch success story in Tarin Kot in Uruzgan is just due to the fact that there are some local Popolzai (that is why Daman district is also quiet).

The idea that we can “separate the Taliban from the population” is (at least now, though maybe it was different in 2003-2004) a fallacy that is going to cost a lot of lives and resources.

Austin Long: If failure in the past means that all future efforts are doomed, then yes, Kandahar is lost. I don’t believe that past failure automatically foredooms future effort. To lift an example from Iraq, in August 2006 a well-done Marine Corps intelligence report described the province of Anbar as a lost cause. This was subsequently proved wrong — Anbar is now in a lot better shape than many other parts of Iraq.

The assessment was not wrong because it was based on poor information but because circumstances changed, most notably the U.S. began to exploit and address local grievances to enable partnering with local tribes. Afghanistan is not Iraq, but my point is that past failure, even particularly bad failure, should not automatically be a reason to throw up one’s hands.

Zhari-Panjwayi will be tough, but Arghandab, until the deaths of Alikozai leaders Mullah Naqib and Abdul Hakim Jan in 2007-2008, was pretty resistant to the Taliban. You note that the Alikozai are increasingly alienated, and I agree if that does not change, then progress will be difficult if not impossible. The key, then, is to address the alienation of the Alikozai (and other tribes).

I disagree that we are not in a position to affect the distribution of power among tribes. The past 30 years of war have already affected that.  The Taliban specifically worked against the tribal system — surely coalition efforts can at least have some effect, if only through distributing development funds to tribes that were previously the “have-nots.” This will require strategic thought and a willingness to lean on the Karzais, but is not impossible.

How do you separate the population? You secure an area with coalition and Afghan National Army forces, recruit police (or Afghan Public Protection program types — though I am not convinced this is a good idea — better to send in the Afghan National Civil Order Police while training local police through the Focused District Development process), add checkpoints, provide money, etc.

This is exactly what the Canadians are doing in Dand district center (Degh-e-Bah). Will it work? I don’t know — but that’s what it looks like. You have to be willing to grant amnesty to those local fighters who are willing to switch sides, and this will require reinvigorating concepts like “Peace through Strength,” which is currently moribund.

I don’t think Spin Boldak is a model per se, but if the key to stability is revenue, it should not matter whether it comes from smuggling or road-building and security contracts. The leadership of General Razziq in Spin Boldak is more critical than the fact of money — there’s plenty of money sloshing around Afghanistan; it just doesn’t get spread around.

Razziq, unlike say Ahmad Wali Karzai, appears to spread it around sufficiently to keep all parties quiescent. This spreading of money combined with good leadership is the model. Can it be replicated? Are there enough good Afghan leaders? Again, I don’t know — if there are not then the whole enterprise is indeed doomed, but that has always been the case. The non-Taliban Afghans, be they Tajik, Pashtun, whatever, will ultimately win or lose this war; the coalition can only help.

I am not holding Canadian operations from 2005-2008 up as a model. Many of the Canadians I have talked to explicitly acknowledge that all they did for most of that period was play Taliban whack-a-mole. I am talking about current operations in Dand (and possibly elsewhere soon). Even there, as I noted, it is not clear if it will work, so it may not be a model. But they are trying something different.

I want to be clear that I am not gung-ho about the situation in the south and east of Afghanistan. I am increasingly unclear what vital U.S. interests are at stake in the country. But I think it is wrong-headed to simply declare that the past eight years are such a fiasco that even thinking success is possible now is a fallacy.

Shaun Gregory: If I might throw in a few additional and rather general thoughts. That the Afghan Taliban have staged a major comeback in the Pashtun areas and are reaching some accommodations with other groups to the north and west is beyond doubt, but study after study shows much of the violence is still confined to a relatively small area of Afghanistan. There are some positives for the U.S./NATO ISAF, not least the large  number (500,000 by some accounts) of foreign “nation-builders” still working in relative security in many parts of Afghanistan, the success of the Community Development Council program, the progress on infrastructure, school, and the investment in higher education, etc. We don’t have to be wholly pessimistic.

The containment strategy seems to me the best option available (if not, what are the better alternatives?) but much is unfortunately still going to turn on the Pakistan Army/ISI’s duplicity. In the past seven years, the U,S, and NATO have had very little help from Pakistan against Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and so on; the Pakistanis don’t turn up at Joint Intelligence Centers or if they do they give nothing; and NATO supply lines are increasingly vulnerable through Pakistan, etc.

One key to any notion of “victory” for the U.S./NATO (which will never be more than a window of opportunity for disengagement/downscaling) has to be pressure on Pakistan to do something meaningful against the Afghan Taliban on their side of the border. The U.S. appears to have taken out Pakistan’s public enemy No. 1 — Baitullah Mehsud — so how about some meaningful reciprocity from Pakistan?

Shaun Gregory is Director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU) at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.

Gilles Dorronsoro: Thanks for the answer, Austin. I do not necessarily agree, but there are some interesting and fact-based arguments. Just a few comments:

The Kandahari police are part of the problem, not the solution, and hence pose a real hindrance to securing the area. If we stay in a district, we will need more and more men for years. If we don’t, the Taliban are back.

It is extremely difficult to address local grievances now because the Taliban are both local and non-local. The ideology of jihad blurs the frontiers between the local and universal. The wave of Taliban coming from Pakistan right now to disturb the election is part of this process.

It is not possible to work outside Kandahar now (unless you pay the Taliban; we are a major financial resource for them).

But the main problem is that if you invest your resources in a rural district, you will have less to invest in securing the cities, and it is becoming a real problem. The north of the city of Kandahar is heavily infiltrated by the Taliban (same for Ghazni, Khost, Gardez). This is the priority now — the north. Comparatively, to roll back the Taliban in one or two rural districts is not that important.

We haven’t much time left given where public opinion is headed (one dead a day this year), so let’s focus on the key questions: securing the cities and stopping the Taliban in Kunduz-Takhar-Baghlan. If we fail in these two endeavors, the rest is history.

Austin Long: I agree with most of the points in Gilles’ last comment. The Canadians do too — they chose a few months ago to focus resources on Kandahar City and its approaches (Dand being the first because it is accessible, but probably to include Arghandab and other nearby districts).

The American brigade that is coming in soon will be used to “disrupt” operations in the more rural districts — probably Shah Wali Kot in an arc north around the city to Maywand (where there is already an American battalion), including Ghorak and Khakrez.  I don’t know what the plan is for Zhari-Panjwayi. But the Canadians agree with your assessment on the importance of the city.

As for the police, I couldn’t agree more. I made the point that Anbar province eventually needed between 20-30,000 police in Iraq, while the current plan is to have only 6,000 for all of Kandahar. More men (and to a lesser extent better quality) will be critical.

Oh, and I should be clear that it was the Canadian military that made the choice to focus on Kandahar City and environs. The Canadian government is still sticking to “signature projects” like Dahla Dam.

Alex Strick van Linschoten (in sunny Kandahar): Firstly, this discussion and the original question of “is the Taliban winning?” seem to be coming from the wrong direction. I think it is less a matter of the Taliban “winning” (in any case a difficult concept to measure and more emotive than analytically useful, I fear) than the local government and foreign assistance effort “losing.”

The Taliban in Kandahar do not have any particular spark or forward momentum. I’d strongly argue that what the Taliban do is far less important than what the Afghan government and foreigners don’t do. (I don’t think I need to give examples for either side of that point.)

Secondly, for Kandahar what we need to be looking for at the moment I feel is a “least bad” solution (thanks to Peter for this term). There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and I see no sign of radical change on the part of the Afghan government or foreign military and assistance community in Kandahar.

The counterinsurgent’s principle of protecting the population is a useful idea, perhaps, but nowhere has it been outlined to my satisfaction how exactly this will work for Kandahar — and remember, down south, the ultra-local is king. I just don’t see that the U.S. Army in Maiwand, for example, is operating at that level of detail. As for the Canadian work in Dand at the moment, it’s quite nice on paper, but it isn’t a strategic-level shift and it certainly isn’t going to fundamentally turn the course of the war down south.

At this point, I think it matters less exactly what foreigners and the Afghan government decide to do in southern Afghanistan than that there is a specific strategic goal toward which policy is focused. At the moment there is no sense that all these resources are being directed to any defined goal. I know much has been made of Obama’s specific outlining of exactly this kind of thing, but it doesn’t seem to have trickled all the way down yet. Similarly, on parallel policies — counternarcotics, for example — there have been so many sidetracks and contradictions in the past two or three months (not even to visit the past eight years) that anyone should be excused for being confused.

Previous respondents to this dialogue have cited various places where things are difficult and tough at the moment, offering violent incidents as support. The question of metrics is absolutely crucial to this discussion and I also don’t feel that a satisfactory system or set of guideline measurements has been offered. There are various things that could be used here, but I’m not sure the U.S. military’s in-house services are the right people to check these — I’m thinking specifically of ways to gauge public opinion.

When we think about whether the Taliban are “winning” or not and “how bad things are,” it’s especially useful to take a perspective from the past 30 years. True, the conflict down in Kandahar has passed through some quite different stages, but nowhere have I really heard it suggested that what we have now is “worse” than what we had during the 1980s in Kandahar — extremely heavy fighting, the extent of which has not been properly documented thus far — or during the early 1990s.

It is not so much the actual incidents these days that people object to, but it is the huge, probably impassable, gap between what we say we want to do and what we actually do. A much more realistic assessment and statement of these goals would, to my mind, be far more useful and welcome than any new tactical tricks taken from the counterinsurgency manual.

That being said, I’m pretty unsure how any new sincerity would be taken by local Kandaharis. If anything, the lesson that they’ve learned over the past few decades has been more about living from day to day and never to take what people say at face value. I don’t see any easy way to get past that.

In the end, to my mind it comes down to a question of risk for the international community: How badly do you really want to “win” this war, and how many casualties can you stomach? Any genuine attempt to engage with and “protect the people” is going to mean opening oneself up and exposing weaknesses. This will inevitably be exploited, and there will necessarily be many dead and wounded. If this risk, this willingness to expose oneself to these very local dangers is not accepted or at least understood, that is the point where we should reconsider our presence in the country.

Alex Strick van Linschoten is a journalist based in Kandahar.

University of Texas at Austin

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