Kandahar Through the Taliban’s Eyes
As the U.S.-led coalition attempts to retake Afghanistan's critical southern provinces, they should first attempt to look at the conflict from their enemies' perspective.
For U.S. President Barack Obama, ruminating about the course of the war in Afghanistan from Washington, the distant provinces of Helmand and Kandahar cannot be far from his mind. Winning back Afghanistan’s critical southern heartland is the primary focus of the 46-country International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is surging its troop strength past the 100,000 mark. As if to highlight the allied forces’ anxiety, this month U.S. commanders downgraded the Kandahar offensive to a "process."
Whatever you call it, shifting the locus of attention to Kandahar makes strategic sense. Kandahar city is the birthplace of the Islamist movement, considered even before the birth of the Taliban as the "Philadelphia of Afghanistan" for its central role in the creation of the modern state. Kandahar, once the capital city of 18th-century Afghanistan, has been swelled by an influx of refugees and is now the home of approximately 900,000 people.
With around 70 percent of the province’s population, Kandahar city offers a unique development opportunity for ISAF to put its strategy of "population-centric warfare" into effect. By cracking down on the culture of impunity embodied by Afghanistan’s warlords, re-engaging the Kabul-based government in the affairs of the provinces, and providing Kandahar with services such as electricity, a victory in Kandahar could be a "head-turning" moment in the campaign — one that could shift the war’s momentum.
As ISAF commanders prepare for this pivotal campaign, they should put themselves in the shoes of their enemies. The Taliban enjoy considerable advantages in the fight due to a lack of accountability and their ability to provide amenities to the local population that the government doesn’t. To understand where the Taliban are coming from and therefore jump-start our thinking on how to counter these advantages, I propose a thought experiment: If I were a Taliban commander in Quetta, anticipating the Kandahar offensive from the other side of the battle lines, what would my hopes and fears be right now? What traps would I be setting for the ISAF? And what potential ISAF missteps might I be praying for?
Poor governance: As Taliban, we work hard to stir up resentment over Afghanistan’s lack of progress, rampant corruption, and widening inequality since our fall from power in 2001. Corruption takes many forms, from backhanders to policemen at dozens of formal and informal checkpoints, drug trafficking, and nepotism in the big international security and construction contracts. Instead of taxes being paid to Kabul, Afghans are taxed continuously by those who themselves have to pay for their positions. The $50,000 it costs to become a police chief comes directly out of bribes imposed on the citizenry. It works the same way up and down the hierarchy of government. And it’s music to my ears to hear that many of the key players are very closely related to each other, by marriage and by tribe, and to the bigwigs in Kabul. These webs of influence and corruption fuel opposition to government and provide support and recruits to our cause.
It is gratifying to watch ISAF ignore Afghans’ complaints over their country’s lack of governance and instead empower these warlords. These grievances were also key to our rise to power in the mid-1990s. I also realize that some Afghan warlords would like to perpetuate the conflict as long as possible because they are making huge sums of money from trucking, construction, and security contracts secured with ISAF. These are people who create their own demand. I smile when I hear them described by the international community as "local power brokers."
I hope that ISAF will continue wringing its hands as it tries to strike a balance between working with these warlords to improve security and getting them to clean up their act. My fear is that ISAF will find the means to control the warlords, getting them to clean up their act and invest their ill-gotten gains back into the community by stressing the importance of the government’s legitimacy or, more aggressively, tracing and freezing their international bank accounts. Pashtun perceptions of the warlords’ continued impunity and our links to the top of the Kabul power structure play right into my hands.
Kabul’s disinterest: I am satisfied with Kabul’s disinterest in the provinces’ affairs. I was delighted to learn that only one Afghan government minister had visited Kandahar’s neighboring province, Zabul, in the last 12 months — and then for just two hours. I also enjoyed hearing Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa complain: "I have never heard a minister cancel his trip to Europe. But they do so regularly to Kandahar. And then if they come, they only do so to [the ISAF base at] Kandahar Airfield for a few hours."
Grid problems: The international community has a gratifying habit of neglecting obvious solutions. As a Taliban commander, I thrive off the dissatisfaction this produces. I particularly relish hearing Afghans complain of the 85 factories forced to close in Kandahar because of a lack of electricity, and citizens’ widespread complaints about the lack of street lighting and power in their homes. The darkness that shrouds the city at night encourages crime: These are, in fact, the very conditions that brought us to power in the 1990s.
Today, Kandahar city receives just enough electricity to give each citizen enough power to run a single light bulb for approximately six hours each day. A surge of electrical power would help create the conditions for businesses to take root and, by improving the quality of life, give locals a stake in defeating the Taliban. But for want of $100 million annually — the cost of putting 100 U.S. troops in the theatre for a year — three times more power has not been delivered. Even though international donors acknowledge the urgency of finding a short-term solution, we chuckle when we hear them balk at paying for diesel.
We were pleasantly surprised to hear that the U.S. government has opposed the electrification expansion program for Kandahar, in spite of the advice given by those working there. As Taliban, we think this is excellent news, for which we are very grateful to Washington. I am impressed that U.S. legislators can ignore the needs of their troops on the ground so easily. I wish I could do that.
Regional diplomacy: I certainly do not want ISAF and Pakistan to get their act together and remove us from our safe havens, and our diplomats, mujahideen, and mullahs work hard to prevent this. It amuses us that everyone knows of our safe houses in the border town of Chaman, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, but appears powerless to act.
I am pleased that Afghans and Pakistanis cannot find the diplomatic common sense to allow even the simplest of exchanges, such as permitting each other’s trucks to cross the border without having to transfer their shipments to other trucks. I would also be very unhappy if the Iranians began cooperating more with Kabul, bringing supplies to Afghanistan and helping to secure the Afghan-Iranian border. The more they argue with the Americans, the happier I am.
Army’s reputation: I am displeased that the Afghan National Army is visibly growing in stature and professionalism. However, the fact that it is perceived as a Tajik, northern-dominated force alien to many southern Pashtuns is some consolation. I am more content that the Afghan National Police has a near-universal reputation as a corrupt, inefficient force, more likely to prey upon citizens than protect them.
My war plan: As a Taliban commander, I realize that I must fight ISAF using political, military, and economic means. My strategy is simple: exploit ISAF’s weaknesses as a multinational force fraught with inter- and intragovernmental disagreements and undermine any sympathy it enjoys among Afghans.
Anything that makes ISAF unpopular helps me. I celebrate when its soldiers’ lack of restraint causes civilian deaths. I smile when its convoys and the private security it employs cause delays and resentment on our roads.
As I survey the scene in Helmand and Kandahar, the last thing I would want is for ISAF to provide Kandahar city with electricity, crack down on corruption, and re-establish Kabul’s relationship with its provinces. Above all, I hope that ISAF continues to ignore the factors that help the insurgency in what we too hope will be the pivotal confrontation in this long war.