The Taliban claimed responsibility on Sunday for a nighttime assault on NATO’s largest base in southern Afghanistan. In the second such an attack on a major ISAF installation in one week, insurgents launched rockets, mortar fire and automatic weapons while attempting to storm Kandahar Air Field.
Foreign Secretary William Hague of the United Kingdom and two of his colleagues were en route for Kandahar when the attack occurred. Their flight was diverted. After landing in Afghanistan, Hague told the BBC that it would be “unwise” and “unhelpful” to set a firm date for withdrawal of British forces currently deployed in the country. “They should only be here for as long as we need to work toward that objective of Afghans being able to look after their own security,” said Hague.
The attack on Kandahar Air Field came mere days after a similar insurgent strike against Bagram Air Field, the main coalition base in the east of the country. Those insurgents, some disguised as US forces, killed one contractor and injured several American service members.
Kandahar, which is one of Afghanistan’s southernmost provinces, will be the focus of the next phase in General Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency campaign. Earlier this month the Pentagon reported to Congress that the operation would commence “once the political conditions are set.”
February’s Helmand offensive managed to put Afghan government and security personnel in place but on the whole this “hold and build” strategy has been slow to bear fruit. Particularly in the south the insurgency has proven difficult to suppress.
Last week, Alex Strick van Linschoten reported from Kandahar for The National Newspaper, “a city scarred by daily violence and nervously awaiting the attention of America’s next offensive.” According to Van Linschoten, almost nine years of mismanagement and neglect have allowed the Taliban to rebuild their movement as a heterogenous collection of insurgent franchises. “Afghan government institutions have alienated large swathes of local society and pushed them directly into the hands of Taliban recruiters.”
The province is of significance to both fighting parties. Kandahar sees narcotics being moved into Pakistan while money and manpower go the other way in support of the Taliban’s campaign. To ISAF forces, victory in Kandahar will be pivotal to the process of transferring security and power to Afghan authorities.
Western forces are in tough spot though. According to Van Linschoten, the Taliban represent the “de facto authority in Kandahar City and in the outlying districts.” Bombs, attacks and assassinations were already fairly common but during the past three months, the situation has deteriorated rapidly. Many families hardly venture outdoors while economic activity, consequently, has readily decreased to a bare minimum.
Economic and political life is sustained only by those who have moved to fill the positions of people who have left for calmer parts of the country. The Kandahar residents holding official positions or owning companies are arguably the dregs of local society: able to hold their own in an increasingly violent environment but unable to offer ordinary residents a different future.
As the summer offensive grows near, “still more people are leaving the city,” reports Van Linschoten, “selling their land or sending their families to Quetta or Kabul.”
Kandahar is at the center of the Americans’ new counterinsurgency tactics. The Taliban, on the other hand, have always claimed southern Afghanistan as their heartland and primary base of support. “Nothing so far has disrupted that perception,” claims Van Linschoten.
Resources withheld from the south in the wake of the Iraq War are now being doubled and recommitted in the face of what looks more and more like failure, and a last-ditch attempt is being made to tip the scales in favour of the Afghan government, if only temporarily.
After coalition forces secured Helmand Province in February, they managed to establish local authority in the hands of allied officials. Yet over time, the Taliban infiltrated layers of government and civil society as government troops seemed unable to ensure permanent order.
The Kandahar operation is supposed to turn the tide of the war. In the words of Karen DeYoung, writing for The Washington Post, “The bet is that the Kandahar operation, backed by thousands of US troops and billions of dollars, will break the mystique and morale of the insurgents.” According to DeYoung, “There is no Plan B.”
US officials have been damping expectations for the offensive with General McChrystal saying there will be no “D-Day” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai before a Washington think-tank audience on Thursday, promising that the effort in Kandahar would not see “tanks rolling into the city.” Clinton added that the United States doesn’t want to destroy Kandahar City in order to save it.