Afghanistan: How Well Is the U.S. Really Doing in Kandahar?

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Massoud Hossaini / AFP / Getty Images

A U.S. Army soldier patrols Siah Choy village in Afghanistan's Kandahar province

NATO commanders are boasting of dramatic progress just weeks into the U.S.-led push into Taliban strongholds around Kandahar province. They say the heavily pounded insurgents have fled some areas for good, setting the stage for the Kabul government to finally establish its rule in the region and to initiate reconstruction. These upbeat claims coincide with talk about behind-the-scenes negotiations with the militants, suggesting that for all the fierce hostilities, an endgame is in mind, if not in sight.

But the military's purported gains in the southern war zone do not align with the bleak picture painted by most sources on the ground.

When General David Petraeus assumed command of U.S. and multinational forces in June, he inherited a slow-cooked counterinsurgency strategy that put a priority on protecting Afghans over Taliban body count. There was also deepening skepticism about the war from the American public and President Obama, who declared a summer 2011 timetable to start withdrawing troops. And Petraeus had a deadline: a war review was slated for December, meaning measurable results had to be posted within months, not years. So while counterinsurgency has remained the stated strategy, military planners have gone back to what they do best: killing insurgents as aggressively as possible, with the aim of dealing a decisive blow to the Taliban in Kandahar, the movement's birthplace and strategic nerve center.

Now, as the fighting season winds down, the coalition's spin machine is in high gear. A host of recent stories have supported the military's assertion that clearing operations in districts surrounding Kandahar are making headway, with some going so far as to say that insurgents have been "routed." These stories tend to be lopsidedly sourced to military and civilian officials. Yet many reports from journalists embedded with troops in the field are at variance with the official assertions. Most describe a stalemate at best, or even describe the Taliban as having the initiative. Aid organizations, meanwhile, note that civilian casualties in Kandahar are at an all-time high. Thousands have fled their homes en masse. Development projects are at a near standstill.

There's a familiar precedent to all of this. Before the Kandahar offensive, a military-driven public-relations thrust came in advance of the siege of Marjah, a Taliban-held town in central Helmand province's opium-poppy belt. In the weeks ahead of the February operation to oust them, military officials framed the operation as a stepping-stone for the broader push east. With most of the Taliban already long gone, U.S. forces encountered few hiccups in Marjah. A governor was quickly installed as part of a government-in-a-box strategy that would connect neighboring population centers and take them into Kabul's orbit. But since then, the insurgents have regrouped in Marjah. Nine months on, despite some small improvements — increased commerce, reopened schools — the Taliban still threatens anyone who might cooperate with the Afghan government in Marjah, which has continued to struggle under a replacement governor. Hit-and-run attacks harass U.S. forces there each day.

It is still too early to gauge the impact of operations around Kandahar. As they do every year, insurgents have begun to decamp for the borderlands for the winter — which would bring a decline in violence in any event. Embedded reporting is also limited to narrow snapshots and not the bigger picture. Sometimes, even those glimpses are not available. In October, for instance, a day before a key operation kicked off in Arghandab district, all media embeds were abruptly cancelled. (The two-week blackout was followed by bold assertions of success.) Some of the secrecy may relate to the ongoing black ops carried out by special-forces units to dismantle the Taliban's leadership structure. Senior military sources insist that on any given day, two to three low- to mid-level commanders are killed, along with as many as 20 to 30 foot soldiers. These figures are impossible to confirm.

In the meantime, NATO commanders have intimated that contacts between Afghan officials and the Taliban are taking place with the U.S. military's consent. But with their efforts overwhelmingly focused on wiping out insurgents, there's a growing consensus this is nothing more than a psychological ploy to confuse the enemy — and one that could backfire. By targeting Taliban commanders, some say that the coalition risks further atomizing an insurgency that already has many moving parts, leaving less experienced guerrillas to fill the vacuum and extend the fighting. The political deal needed to take troops home could well be pushed further out of reach. At the same time, optimistic reports from Kandahar could create unrealistic expectations among the American public. If the Taliban remains robust when fighting resumes in the spring, what remains of U.S. popular support may come crashing down. In that case, any exaggeration of the current campaign's progress would be more than misleading. It would be self-defeating.