The coming battle for control of this ancient crossroads city will be the toughest challenge of the war in Afghanistan -- not because it will be bloody, necessarily, but because it will require the hardest item for U.S. commanders to deliver, which is an improvement in governance.
Kandahar is the heartland of the Pashtun people -- a place of competing tribes and clans, of hidden wealth accumulated from drug trafficking and smuggling, and of notorious power brokers symbolized in the public mind by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the leader of the provincial council and brother of Afghanistan's president.
Reforming the local government is like disassembling a pyramid of pick-up sticks. One wrong move and the whole pile collapses. Yet if the United States accommodates the existing power structure, it will appear to be condoning corruption here -- a bad message for the public in Afghanistan and America alike.
Talking with U.S. officials about the coming campaign, I heard a range of good ideas but not a clear strategy. The American officials know they can't deliver on their counterinsurgency promise of protecting the population without breaking the hold of the local chieftains. Yet they are wary of toppling the system and opening the way for what might be even worse chaos -- and new resentment at American meddling.
The Kandahar campaign will have a military component as U.S. troops clear Taliban strongholds surrounding the city, such as Zhari, Panjwai and Arghandab. But in Kandahar, the problem isn't the enemy so much as our nominal friends such as Ahmed Karzai. The battle for the city will be political more than military -- and it will require skills and expertise that are in short supply.
"It's amazing what we don't know about Kandahar," says one of the top U.S. military commanders. He just supervised a special push to gather intelligence about power brokers, tribal leaders and their grievances and, as he put it, "who's who in the Kandahar zoo." Unfortunately, the United States is starting from a low base after years of intelligence collection that was "only marginally relevant to the overall strategy," according to a report in January by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Recognizing the severe gaps in their knowledge, U.S. commanders have adopted what might be described as "operational humility." They know they can make big mistakes if they aren't careful. Shaking up the power structure might put the United States on the side of the Pashtun man in the street, but it would open a power vacuum that could be exploited by the Taliban. Given the planned July 2011 start for withdrawal of U.S. troops, there isn't time for risky experiments in Kandahar. American officials worry, quite sensibly, about the law of unintended consequences.
So commanders are opting instead for an approach that one calls "re-balancing" the Kandahar power elite. The idea is to open up political space to tribes and clans that have been left out of the spoils system. "The basic problem in Kandahar is that you have a disenfranchised population," says Frank Ruggiero, a State Department official who is the top U.S. civilian representative in southern Afghanistan.
The tool that U.S. strategists hope to use to broaden the political base in Kandahar is the traditional Afghan forum known as the "shura." Officials are encouraging these gatherings regularly in the city and the surrounding districts, and urging local Afghan officials to make them more inclusive and a better forum for redressing grievances. They want to combine the shuras with better policing, aided by embedded U.S. trainers, and with new economic development projects.
Traveling here with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I attended a shura hosted by Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province. This was not exactly a gathering of the dispossessed. The most emphatic speakers around the table warned that the United States shouldn't go after Ahmed Karzai. "If he's not here, the balance will be unbalanced," Wesa said after the meeting.
Curbing corruption in Kandahar may be mission impossible. But it's the task that the United States has set for itself, by promising through its counterinsurgency campaign that it is working for a better and more just Afghanistan than what the Taliban offers.
It's this dissonance between ends and means that worries a visitor here this week. The hardest part of this war, paradoxically, isn't the fighting on the ground, which the U.S. military conducts brilliantly, but the struggle in the Afghan political sphere, where we know precious little.