In Kandahar, the Taliban Own the Night

Afghan sgt. leading U.S. troops to a school got lost and can't read a map.

December 3, 2009, 4:39 PM

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2009— -- On a recent evening Staff Sgt. Jeff Schaffer watched closely as a plain-clothes intelligence agent pointed to four different spots on a map of Kandahar. Schaffer is a squad leader in the first platoon of the 293rd Military Police Company, the only U.S. unit that regularly patrols inside the city center.

The intelligence agent showed a young, inexperienced Afghan police sergeant the location of a school on the edge of the city where insurgents had hid three jugs of explosives, destined to be used for the ubiquitous roadside bombs known in military parlance as IEDs.

The sergeant nodded with understanding, and the Afghan police and their American mentors left for a night patrol.

Multiple Kandahar residents say the Taliban "own the night." The regular night patrols that Schaffer leads are an attempt to take it back.

"The Taliban enjoy the limited visibility to have freedom of movement," Schaffer, 25, said as he walked along a rocky alley in the dark. The only light allowed was the red flashlight being used by reporters walking with him. "So us showing up sporadically here and there, it's good. It shows to locals that hey, we're out here, we're involved, we're going to be in your backyards day and night."

These missions are as much about security as they are about training, and the end of the walk revealed how far Kandahar police have to go.

The Afghan police sergeant arrived in the area where the school should have been. He then turned to Schaffer's translator and made an admission: He didn't know where he was going. Nobody had ever shown him how to read a map.

Kandahar will be the center of the new U.S. strategy announced by President Obama, according to military and civilian officials interviewed in Kandahar and Kabul. The goal: protect the population better than they have been protected so far.

At least 10,000 of the additional 30,000 troops Obama announced will be deployed in and around the city, officials say. Most of them will go to the city's outskirts to try to create what the new Canadian general in charge of Kandahar calls a "ring of stability" and a "true buffer zone" to keep militants out.

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

Some of the reinforcements will be deployed inside Kandahar, boosting the number of military police who arrived early this summer. Their job will be to train woefully equipped police who, in many areas of the city, simply refuse to leave their stations without their American mentors.

The commander of the Afghan sergeant who couldn't read the map admits his police owe everything they have to foreign troops and would be overrun without them.

"We need the support of the coalition forces. We don't have enough ammunition or equipment," said Abdul Qadir, who lost three members of his family to Taliban attacks. "We have our uniforms and we're sitting here today because of the coalition's help."

Obama made clear this week that training the Afghan security forces was the only way to "create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans" and eventually leave Afghanistan. That is especially true in Kandahar City, where Western officials long ago decided against sending in a significant number of foreign forces who would just provide more targets to the militants.

But in quarterly assessments of the Kandahar police, the Canadian government admitted in September that only one of the 17 police units in the city was capable of "planning, executing and sustaining near-autonomous operations."

Alex Strick van Linschoten, who says he is the only Westerner living on his own inside the city, has seen the deterioration of the city's security.

"Each year and each month gets slightly worse in terms of security in the city," he says. "I drive around the streets with my driver who's been living in the city his whole life and he points to people standing on the corners and says, 'That's a Taliban commander from this place and that's a Taliban commander from that place.'"

Van Linschoten says he has seen Taliban checkpoints inside the city limits. "From the minute you step off the plane, you're being monitored, and that's scary," he argues.

Capt. Michael Thurman, the Bravo Company commander of the 293rd Military Police Company, described the effect of that fear. "After they get scared, they start to question, 'Well who do I go with? Do I go with the Taliban or do I go with the Afghan National Police? Whose side of the government should I work on now?," he says. "We have to secure them. And to do that, we need more policing."

"That Connection Doesn't Exist"

In addition to training police, the U.S. and Canada will focus on trying to improve the city's government, which Western officials say has so far failed to enhance the city with any significant development. Without that development, they say residents will never support the foreign forces who are seen as the government's patrons.

"We have an enormous amount of money, but we can deliver services only if we have the people who can work with us," one Western official in the city said.

On a recent patrol, Maj. Frederic Jean, who until recently was the battle commander for the Canadian forces in the city, walked into an angry group of shop owners.

They were complaining that the government hadn't helped them after a massive truck bomb exploded across the street in late August, killing dozens and destroying many of their buildings.

"Nobody is going to help us," said Hashim, one of the store owners. He argued that the families of the victims had received money from the government, but the owners whose shops had been damaged had not received a penny. "Because of that, we are going to rebuild it by our own expenses."

The lack of electricity is especially irksome to residents. Despite millions of dollars in development aid, Kandahar only has three to four hours of electricity a day.

Part of the problem is corruption, U.S. officials say, especially within the lower levels of bureaucracy. American military officers describe occasions when Afghan police had shaken locals down at checkpoints. Civilian officials describe occasions when government officials skimmed huge chunks of development aid.

In one small example, the manager of Western company in Kandahar said he had to pay a $5,000 bribe to increase electricity going into his building.

But a larger problem than corruption is capacity. The governor argues that Kandahar does not have enough money or resources.

One Western official who helped the governor sign a contract with a Western security company joked how few people he had working for him. Had the Canadians not helped the governor fill out his staff, the official quipped, "the only people in his office would have been him and a driver."

The lack of a strong government in Kandahar radiates outside of the city, where the Taliban have launched a successful campaign against tribal leaders who had been providing local security in many Kandahar districts.

Without strong tribal structures, the Taliban were able to move into areas and create their own shadow court system that local residents have no choice but to use – simply because the government was providing no alternative.

"Success in this country depends on the connection between the people and the government," a Western official in Kandahar said. "And right now, that connection doesn't exist."

That connection can be facilitated by better security, which U.S. officials argue will come after thousands of additional troops deploy to the edge of the city.

"Today, the number of troops is not sufficient to the size of the population," a Western official in Kandahar said.

In the past, the official said foreign forces would clear an area, but would then have to leave and the Taliban would return.

If the West does not "generate sufficient force densities in critical areas, its attempted counteroffensive will fail, giving enemy fighters a permissive environment and allowing the Taliban's campaign of terror to continue in Kandahar City," concluded a recent report from the Institute for the Study of War.

Providing security from the Taliban does not only come from additional troops. To receive the intelligence they will need to target the Taliban, troops and the Afghan police will have to earn the trust of the population.

"The militants' ability to move throughout the city is there, and we can't stop that. So what we have to do is get the local populace to identify the outsiders," argued Capt. Thurman. "And until we get the populace to actually give us that intelligence, we will never get to the point where we're going to win the counterinsurgency battle."

Thurman told the story of a recent foot patrol with the Afghan police through a market, as close as these troops can get to "walking a beat."

"A local elder came up to me and said it was the first time in five years that he'd seen a foreign soldier on the ground, out of their vehicles," Thurman remembered.

Thurman argues that foreign troops in Kandahar had failed to properly engage with the local population. They ride around in their armored trucks and they don't get out as often as they should, he said.

And that creates a divide between the people and the men who are supposed to be their protectors. Because the people of Kandahar have no armor against deteriorating security.

"We've got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in," Thurman said. "What we've been doing in Kandahar is not working."