As the US continues to build combat power as part of the Afghanistan surge, GEN McChrystal has already telegraphed his next major move - into the strategically vital Kandahar province. Recognizing the importance of Kandahar city (and its surrounding towns/villages), US forces are planning to focus several of the additional BCTs arriving in Afghanistan in the province. Additionally, McChrystal and ISAF are re-organizing the Regional Command (RC) structure in the South to split the existing RC-South into RC-SW (Helmand) and RC-SE (Kandahar). RC-SW will be led by a Marine 2-star and RC-SE will be led by British MG Nick Carter (the current RC-South commander). Beginning in 2011, a US commander will take over RC-SE and focus the command on conducting operations in Kandahar.
Just as in the recent operation to clear and secure Marjah in Helmand province, the US has developed a comprehensive plan to improve security, governance, essential services, rule of law, and economic growth in the area considered to be the birthplace of the Taliban. And, just as in Marjah, the most difficult objective will likely be to make improvements in governance amidst a highly complex political and tribal landscape [for more background on Kandahar, check out this excellent open-source primer from The Institute for the Study of War]. As Frank Ruggiero, the top US civilian official in Southern Afghanistan explained in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Kandahar is a political problem...and the campaign in Kandahar will be led by governance." In addition to improving governance across the province's ten districts, it will also be critical to strengthen the rule of law, maintain the delicate tribal balance, and weaken several key power-brokers who wield more influence than the "official" government leaders.
ISAF forces definitely have their work cut out for them when it comes to improving governance in Kandahar (both at the provincial and the city level). As I've discussed in previous posts, the "official" Kandahar government is in competition with the Taliban's shadow governance structure, which is recognized by many locals as more effective and responsive than the provincial government led by Kandahar Provincial Governor Tooryalai Wesa. A childhood friend of President Hamid Karzai, Wesa is regarded by many as ineffective at best (and also has a reputation for corruption). As Ruggiero explains, "The specific objective is to make the Afghan government a more viable option for people to turn to...it's to show that the government has more relevance to their lives vis-à-vis the shadow governance of the Taliban."
Currently, the provincial government is essentially holed up in their offices in Kandahar City, unable to exert influence/control into most of the province's 17 districts. As explained in a recent NY Times article, there is much work to be done at the district level. One local explained that in Kandahar proper, “The Taliban can walk around, and government officials cannot.” Outside the city, it is worse. Government services barely exist. Only 5 of 17 districts in the province are accessible for government officials. Administrators and police chiefs are appointed to the districts, but they have so little backup and so few resources, they can do little. With 40 to 60 police officers in each district, they can barely guard the district center. Health services and education are virtually absent outside the towns, and two-thirds of the province’s schools are closed, human rights officials say.
Thus, one of the major objectives of the ISAF campaign in Kandahar will be bolstering the local district governments, making them more powerful and able to respond to the needs of their residents. Many have argued that the district level is where we truly need to focus our efforts, and I tend to agree. With ineffective and often corrupt provincial level leaders (who are usually close personal friends of Karzai), our best bet is to empower the district leaders to allow for true "community-level" governance.
Power Brokers - Karzai and Shirzai
The crux of the challenge lies in the need to limit the power of a small group of power brokers who have a death grip on the provincial budget and wield power based on their control of the provincial council, ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and a monopoly on lucrative security and reconstruction contracts. In essence, real power rests with just two families who have prospered under the presence of American forces in the past eight years. One of them is the family of President Hamid Karzai, who is represented here by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads the provincial council. The other belongs to Gul Agha Shirzai, the former governor of Kandahar, and his brothers Bacha Shirzai and Razziq Shirzai, who have gotten lucrative security and construction deals with NATO forces. Residents and elders accuse the families of persecuting rivals and excluding all other tribes from access to power. Their domination has undercut any popular backing for the government or the foreign forces supporting them.
As the New York Times recently explained, “The first thing Afghans fear is the coming of more foreign troops, and the second thing they fear is the empowering of the current leadership and administration,” said Shahabuddin Akhunzada, a tribal elder from Kandahar city. His Eshaqzai tribe has complained of repeated arrests and political exclusion. The West’s acceptance of Mr. Karzai’s re-election despite widespread fraud was the last straw, he said.
Much attention has been centered lately on the murky past of Ahmed Wali Karzai, in particular his potential links to the illegal opium trade and involvement with the Kandahar Strike Force, a paramilitary element allegedly run by the CIA. In a recent NY Times article, Dexter Filkins discusses the controversial decision of ISAF and US leaders to allow Ahmed Karzai to remain in power in Kandahar despite his alleged ties to the drug trade and potentially to Taliban figures in the region. I tend to agree with several ISAF/NATO officials who argued for Ahmed Karzai's removal (much as Bing West has recently argued for Hamid Karzai's removal). The problem, though, is who (or what) do we replace him with?
I think David Ignatius was onto something with his recent Washington Post op-ed when he discussed "re-balancing" the Kandahar power elite. My proposed strategy to do this would draw on the concepts of sub-national/community-level governance advocated by COL Chris Kolenda and call for the empowerment of district level leaders (whether tribal or other) who could better represent the interests of their people and offer some competition for the Wesa-Karzai-Shirzai factions who control most of the provinces resources right now. Although risky, if ISAF elements are able to find, vet, and empower solid leaders at the district level and funnel resources and money directly to them, it could eventually create some competition for the Kandahar provincial leaders and also eliminate some of the feelings of disenfranchisement that many locals feel right now.
We will continue to see this debate play out in the coming months as ISAF/US forces continue shaping operations around Kandahar and begin the clear/hold phase of the operation. Ultimately, though, there will be no enduring success in Kandahar (or Afghanistan at all) until we're able to establish an effective and legitimate alternative to the Taliban's shadow government.