Afghanistan: The Test in Kandahar

The battle for Kandahar province, the Taliban's center of gravity, will decide the war

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Adam Ferguson for TIME

A view of Pir Mohamed School, in Sanjaray, Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A few days after my story about the efforts to reopen the Pir Mohammed School — closed by the Taliban in 2007 — in the Kandahar province town of Senjaray was published, I received a jubilant e-mail from Captain Jeremiah Ellis, commander of the U.S. forces there. The school was now occupied by his troops and being renovated. "Huge groups of onlookers turn out to see what is going on," Ellis wrote. "Their initial questions are, 'Are you building a new coalition strongpoint?', 'Are you preparing to clear the town, one house at a time?' I tell them that we are here to clean the school, paint it, repair the windows and doors and place books, teachers, chalkboards and pencils into the rooms ... They are ecstatic."

This is wonderful news, a tribute to the persistence of Captain Ellis and his troops. But it also raises serious questions — not only about the future of the school but also about the coming U.S.-led offensive to drive the Taliban from Kandahar, the Pashtun heartland of the insurgency. Given the fact that the Afghan government is practically nonexistent in Senjaray, where will the teachers come from? Given the fact that the local Afghan police have only one function — protecting the local strongman, Hajji Lala — who will run the security station located next to the school? Will the local population, which fears the Taliban more than it trusts the Afghan government or police, be willing to send its children to Pir Mohammed?

These sorts of questions are common throughout Kandahar province. In a recent survey of Kandahar residents, taken by the U.S. Army, a majority said they trusted the Taliban to be more honest and provide better governance than President Hamid Karzai's regime. (Karzai's half brother Ahmed Wali remains a controversial and corrupt local strongman.) And yet, the level of optimism emanating from General Stanley McChrystal's headquarters in Kabul stands in near delusional contrast to the situation in Kandahar as it is being experienced by troops and civilian workers on the ground.

McChrystal's optimism is based on information that he cannot share. He is a special-forces guy, and there is — apparently — a very successful effort under way to roll up the midlevel Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. It is the untold story of this war, just as it was the untold backbone of the 2007 surge in Iraq. "It is exceedingly dangerous to be a Taliban leader right now," a senior Administration official told me. "The counterterrorism effort has broken the momentum that the Taliban built up over the past few years."

That may well be true. In Senjaray, for example, a half-dozen local Taliban honchos were captured by U.S. special-operations forces (SOF) in recent weeks. But counterterrorism is only one side of the coin, so to speak — the other side is ... COIN, the military acronym for counterinsurgency operations: the idea that it is more important to secure the population than to kill the enemy, which is the heart of current U.S. strategy. Administration and military officials believe that securing Kandahar, the insurgency's center of gravity, will decide the war. "This is the test," the Administration official said. And yet, the COIN effort in Kandahar has been halfhearted at best.

Part of the problem is a strategic blunder the U.S. military has made: it diverted crucial resources from Kandahar to a peripheral battle in neighboring Helmand province. McChrystal questioned the Helmand effort when he took charge a year ago, but he then — inexplicably — doubled down on it by ordering the attack on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in February. Marjah was taken, but most of the Taliban slipped away and have now reconstituted themselves in the countryside; a game of whack-a-mole seems likely to ensue. Meanwhile, the counterinsurgency effort in Kandahar was crippled by the diversion of Afghan troops and police (and also of U.S. civilian aid efforts) to Helmand: an entire Afghan regiment that was supposed to partner with U.S. troops in the crucial Zhari district — where Senjaray is located — was sent to Marjah. There are also 600 of Afghanistan's best-trained police officers (ANCOPs) in Marjah, while the police presence in Zhari is negligible. The fabled U.S. civilian surge is, well, a fable in the district. U.S. forces will triple in Zhari during the next few months, but that won't make much of a difference if the Afghan security and governmental presence remains as pathetic as it now is.

In the recent U.S. Army survey of Kandahar province, overwhelming majorities of people said that they were opposed to the coming U.S. offensive and that they wanted reconciliation with the Taliban. Karzai has favored reconciliation in the past — in December 2001, the defeated Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar agreed, at Karzai's urging, to lay down his arms and join the government, but the Bush Administration refused the deal. The Taliban are much stronger now, but if it is true that McChrystal's SOF surge is taking its toll, the time seems right for Karzai to renew the offer.