A Winnable War
With a new commander and a renewed commitment from the commander in chief, we will make military progress in Afghanistan.
The biggest problem with the Marjah operation, however, is that it was justified and explained on the wrong basis. Marjah is not a vitally important area in principle, even in Helmand. It is important because of its role as a Taliban base camp. It was so thoroughly controlled by the insurgents that the prospects for the rapid reestablishment of governance were always dim. It was fundamentally a military objective rather than a political one, and McChrystal made a mistake by offering Marjah as a test case of ISAF’s ability to improve Afghan governance. What matters about Marjah is that the enemy can no longer use it as a sanctuary and headquarters. ISAF’s military success there has allowed the coalition to launch subsequent operations in the Upper Helmand River Valley, particularly the more strategically important contested area around Sangin. The Marjah operation has so far succeeded in what it should have been intended to do. The aspects that are faltering should not have been priorities in that location.
Kandahar differs from Marjah in almost all respects. Kandahar City is not now a Taliban stronghold, although the Taliban are present in some force in its western districts and can stage attacks throughout the city. The Taliban had controlled the vital neighboring district of Arghandab until newly arrived American forces began contesting it in September 2009. The insurgents remain very strong in Zhari, Panjwayi, and Maiwand Districts to the west and south of Kandahar City, but they do not control any of those areas as completely as they controlled Marjah.
An even greater difference is that Kandahar City and the surrounding districts are strategically important terrain. It is much too strong to say “as Kandahar goes, so goes Afghanistan”—the coalition could succeed in Kandahar and still lose the war. But it is very hard to imagine winning the war without winning in Kandahar. It is the most populous city in Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt, the historical base of the Pashtun dynasties that formed and ruled Afghanistan for most of the last 250 years, and the birthplace of the Taliban itself, as well as the home of the Karzai family. It is also geographically important as the major city at the southwestern tip of the Hindu Kush and the junction of the roads from Herat, Kabul, and Quetta (in Pakistan). For all of these reasons, enduring stability in Kandahar underwritten by acceptable and effective governance is an essential precondition for success in Afghanistan in a way that stability in Marjah simply is not.
The Marjah operation nevertheless offers important lessons about how to approach Kandahar. McChrystal had already rightly abandoned the idea of parachuting government officials into cleared areas around Kandahar before his departure. He was focusing instead on trying to get the government officials already in place to build local support for the operation. That effort, manifested by several jirgas and shuras (gatherings of officials and elders) over the past few months, has been faltering. McChrystal had recognized the problem before his departure, which is one reason he had announced a delay in the planned clearing operations around Kandahar. Petraeus now has the opportunity to revisit this approach to building local support for the operation and correct it.
It is too soon to say which of the various alternative approaches Petraeus will adopt or whether it will succeed. Learning, adapting, and trying different approaches are not the same as failing or losing. On the contrary, these are an essential part of success. American forces in Iraq experimented with a variety of approaches over years throughout the country before hitting on the right set of solutions. Under McChrystal’s command, ISAF was moving through similar phases in Afghanistan much more rapidly. Since Petraeus has already shown his ability to explore alternatives until he finds one that works, there is reason to have some confidence that he will do so in Kandahar and in Afghanistan more generally.
Recent news reports have exposed what those who know Kandahar have long understood—that the predominance of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother, alienates a significant portion of the population and is itself a major driver of instability and insurgency. Excellent reporting by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times and others has revealed the degree to which U.S. and ISAF contracting practices have reinforced this predominance and thus contributed to the problem. Does Ahmad Wali’s kinship with the president make this problem intractable—thus rendering the entire effort hopeless? Here the example of Iraq may be illuminating.