Kandahar City: The 'Crown Jewel' of the Strategy

Much of Obama's Afghan strategy will focus on the county's second largest city.

December 1, 2009, 10:26 AM

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 1, 2009— -- Zarghoona Kakar knew early on that the local government and foreign troops were losing their grip on Kandahar City, the Taliban's spiritual center.

The Taliban threatened her with nightly letters – pieces of paper slipped under her door, or posted to a nearby wall, pressuring her to quit as a member of the provincial council. She refused.

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When they came for her, when they tried to kill her in a local market, they missed. Instead, they shot her husband, who was cradled by their child as he lay bleeding. Later, her brother would be killed in a drive-by shooting.

"The people of Kandahar are living in fear," Kakar said recently in Kabul, where she lives today because it's too dangerous for her to return home. "Because they think the Taliban are stronger -- and their morals are higher -- than the government."

Kandahar City is not in danger of being overrun by Taliban, nor is it a city filled with violence. But its 800,000 residents overwhelmingly say they are scared to death of Taliban militants who, by residents' accounts, move freely, threaten with impunity, and occasionally follow their threats through with kidnappings and assassinations.

The fear has stifled development, which in turn has turned residents against their own government and against the foreign presence.

Outside the city, the Taliban have made the districts currently being patrolled by U.S. soldiers some of the most dangerous areas of the country.

The failure to secure -- or develop -- Kandahar is one of the most glaring failures of the eight-year war. It is the second-largest city in the country and the most important area for the Taliban, who launched their movement from these streets. It is also the hub for the country's Pashtuns, Afghanistan's ethnic majority who also make up the majority of the Taliban. Winning over the Pashtun population has been a goal of the U.S., but officials admit their efforts have largely failed.

And so Kandahar will be the center of the new U.S. strategy being announced by President Obama today, according to military and civilian officials interviewed in Kandahar and Kabul -- an attempt to better protect the population here.

At least 10,000 of the additional 30,000 troops Obama will announce will be deployed in and around the city, officials say. In addition, the Canadian troops who are primarily responsible for patrolling on Kandahar's streets will be beefed up.

The new troops will create a defensive ring around the city, trying to keep the militants who roam freely out of the city center. And an extra U.S. military police unit will enter the city itself, boosting MPs who arrived over the summer. Their job will be to train a woefully equipped police force that, in many areas of the city, simply refuses to leave their stations without their American mentors.

Kandahar will be the first and perhaps most important test of the new U.S. strategy authored by Gen. Stanley McChrystal: focusing on protecting the population instead of hunting insurgents. If the United States can't protect Kandahar's population, U.S. officials say, they will not be able to pacify southern Afghanistan, and therefore not be able to pacify the rest of the country.

"Kandahar," a senior U.S. military official in Kabul said, "is the crown jewel of the new effort."

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