Troubled Afghan Region Pins Hopes On Marines

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Los Angeles Times
February 6, 2008
Pg. 4
Canadians need help fighting the resurgent Taliban in Kandahar. A local official says only the U.S. can do the job.
By Bruce Wallace, Times Staff Writer
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- As the most powerful Afghan official in the troubled southern province of Kandahar, Ahmed Wali Karzai says he knows just how to tame the shadowy Taliban campaign of suicide bombs and assassinations that have raised the specter of a country sliding toward anarchy.
He wants more American soldiers on the ground.
"The Canadians are fine, but Americans are Americans -- the mentality is different," said Karzai, chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar where the Canadian-led military mission has struggled to contain the regrouped Taliban.
Amid the recent deluge of discouraging reports citing declining security in swaths of southern Afghanistan, Karzai's is a rare voice of optimism, claiming that U.S. special forces already have begun to turn the tide in Kandahar with targeted strikes against individual commanders of the fundamentalist group, which was ousted from power six years ago.
"These operations are extremely quiet. They cause no civilian casualties and no damage to the villages," said Karzai, whose power derives in part from being the younger brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"The Americans are very professional," he said. "They go in; they get out. It's just like you see in the movies."
Karzai is about to get his wish for a greater American presence. About 3,200 U.S. Marines are set to deploy to Afghanistan in coming weeks, most of them ticketed for a seven-month stay in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's traditional heartland and home of its revived insurgency.
Beleaguered Canadians in Kandahar can't wait for the Americans to arrive either. They acknowledge that their 2,500 troops have not been enough to create much of a footprint across the province. And they say they are not able to undertake regular patrols of the dangerous back roads in the fertile farming region outside the city of Kandahar, with the result that the Taliban now operates with impunity in some villages not far from the provincial capital.
The implications of a Taliban comeback are being felt far beyond Kandahar, placing a major stress on the 41,000-strong international alliance, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that was supposed to secure and rebuild all of Afghanistan. The jump in insurgent violence over the last two years has led to recriminations within NATO, with the U.S. military leaders questioning whether their partners have the stomach for the fight against the Taliban, and the Canadians, British and Dutch complaining that risks are not being evenly shared across the alliance.
The Canadian government recently warned that it would end its mission in Kandahar by early 2009 unless NATO sends an additional 1,000 soldiers into the fray. The British are also appealing for help containing an equally violent insurgency in neighboring Helmand province.
And the violence has opened up wide disagreements over strategy, mostly over how much force to direct against the Taliban.
In Kandahar, the Canadians are particularly bitter over U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' widely quoted comments last month that some of America's allies "don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations."
His unusually pointed criticism was part of a wider whispering campaign by American officials that accuses Canadian and European forces of being locked in a peacekeeping mind-set, of playing fanciful diplomatic games trying to woo less extreme elements of the Taliban away from the hard core, and of not pushing Afghan soldiers into the forefront of counterinsurgency missions.
"I frankly don't know where Gates gets that," said Brig. Gen. Guy Laroche, who commands the Canadian contingent in Kandahar. Laroche contends that training the Afghan army and police to take over the sharp end of the fighting is actually now the centerpiece of the Canadian approach in Kandahar.
And suggestions that the Canadians might be trying to avoid casualties enrages soldiers who have been taking a pounding from roadside bombs. With 78 soldiers and one diplomat killed since 2002, Canada has the highest casualty percentage among all nations in the NATO forces, and Canadian officers say attacks against troops in Kandahar rose by 50% last year from 2006.
Laroche said there is no friction between Canadian and American troops on the ground. Yet Canadian soldiers and diplomats also say they do not share what some see as an American obsession with tracking down the Taliban.
"We're not hunting Taliban," Laroche said. "We're not going to win by killing every Taliban. We're going to win by getting the Afghan population to say 'enough' to the Taliban."
Canadian troops did initially find themselves engaged in ferocious fighting with the Taliban when they took over command of the NATO forces in the province in 2006. But the Taliban has mostly avoided direct engagements since then, and Laroche says he is happiest avoiding the kinds of clashes that can kill civilians.
Instead, the Canadians say their counterinsurgency strategy is based on securing areas where productive reconstruction and development can occur: supervising the recent completion of a bridge across the Arghandab River north of the city of Kandahar using well-paid local labor, and a road-paving project that will employ 400 Afghans.
Yet the Canadians say their attempt to build trust among the people of Kandahar is undermined by confusion surrounding the future of the mission.
"The Afghans have to make a decision about where to put their loyalties," said one Canadian officer who deals with the people in Kandahar on a regular basis. "They say, 'You're here during the day, a couple of times a week, but the Taliban are here all the time.' I tell them not to worry, that we're staying, that the rest is just politics.
"But they worry that they are going to be stuck with the Taliban."