KABUL (Reuters) - The battle for Kandahar, its importance played down even before it began, has been eclipsed in the media and in Washington by a focus on corruption and peace talks, but its outcome is crucial to the wider Afghan war.
Operation Dragon Strike is the first major attempt since 2001 to regain control of a city that is the Taliban’s spiritual home. This autumn may be the last time that the NATO-led alliance has sufficient boots on the ground to try the push.
Victory would give NATO and the Afghan government more leverage in potential peace negotiations, as acceptance grows in Kabul and abroad that a political solution may be the most likely end to a war now in its tenth year.
If winter arrives and insurgents are still capable of mounting major attacks and intimidating the local population, it could further chill Western governments’ already diminishing appetite for a long-term presence in Afghanistan.
“To strike at the heart of the insurgency, strike at the historical and spiritual home of the Taliban movement sends a very clear message — with the resources we have, we are on the offensive,” said Dakota Wood, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“If we end up having to pull back, or are not successful, there will have to be a serious review of Western aims and resources in Afghanistan.”
The last of President Barack Obama’s 30,000-strong troop surge arrived in late summer but he has pledged to start drawing down numbers from next July, without saying how fast.
For all its importance, NATO and the U.S. military have tried to keep the operation low-profile and expectations modest.
It was formally unveiled only after it had kicked off, and this week the region’s top commander said it would not be possible to judge the results until next June.
The military has been stung by criticism of a much-publicized spring effort to take control of Marjah, a trade hub in neighboring Helmand province. There, foreign forces promised a quick takeover followed by roll-out of a “government in a box.”
Instead, troops have struggled to consolidate early gains and has been bogged down against hit-and-run guerrillas for months.
Western commanders have learned strategic and public-relations lessons from Marjah, and in Kandahar tried to defuse similar potential problems — governance flaws and the perception of failure — with a two-pronged approach.
Operation “Hamkari,” or cooperation, involved a massive intelligence and outreach drive before the shooting started to win over Kandahar’s residents and help direct the fighting.
Fighting also began in targeted areas like Arghandab district long before the operation formally began.
Casualty figures in a main Kandahar hospital over the summer were testament to the violence. Almost twice as many patients with war injuries were treated in August and September — some 1,000 — compared with the same period in 2009.
Dragon Strike was launched at the end of September.
But an emphasis on bringing governance and services does not always translate into reality, particularly when faced with a persistent enemy and a huge gulf in cultural understanding.
“This is the third battle of Panjwai, how is it going to be different from the first two?” said Norine MacDonald, head of the International Council on Security and Development think tank.
“People should have a lot of questions about what they are doing in Kandahar. They are not military issues, these are all questions around hearts and minds, aid and political relations.”
Troops often struggle to identify key community leaders and separate real information from efforts to use development cash and weapons to spread patronage or avenge personal feuds.
“Since the Americans came to this country, we haven’t seen a single day of peace,” Marjah farmer Khan Jan, 30, told Reuters.
“The Taliban are back, there is no security, government troops are only in the center, but the villages and surroundings are controlled by Taliban,” he said months after the offensive.
In overwhelmingly rural Afghanistan, major population centers like Kandahar — the country’s third largest and home to hundreds of thousands of people — have a huge strategic value.
Yet Kandahar had been virtually ignored by NATO for years, garrisoned by Canadian forces with little counter-insurgency experience and far too few to hold major swathes of territory.
“One of the things that scared us when we first started looking at Kandahar last year was how little we knew about it,” said Andrew Exum from the Center for a New America Security, who fought in Afghanistan and worked as an adviser to former top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal.
“Last year we didn’t know if we were losing, winning or had already lost Kandahar.”
A chorus of voices has recently come out to hail the success of the operation so far, including several NATO generals, Karzai’s brother and defense ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi, who said he hopes the operation will be over “in weeks.”
But the “bubble effect” seen in Marjah, where insurgents fled to neighboring areas when under pressure but have returned to harass troops, means that it seems early to call it a success.
This is true of Kandahar itself after years of neglect, and even more so of the surrounding villages. “This is a war where the enemy can hide among the people, so what they are trying to do is very difficult,” said Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly, who visited southern Afghanistan in May.
Others with bitter experience of defeat cautioned against optimism. “Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. Obama is right to pull the troops out no matter how difficult it will be,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the BBC this week.
As was learned in Iraq, years of hostility and a yawning cultural gap make effective counter-insurgency by outsiders almost impossible.
“Obama is not looking to decisively beat the Taliban, he’s looking to halt their momentum and buy time and space to build up local forces. I think that is more reasonable,” Exum said.
Editing by Paul Tait