THE UPCOMING U.S. & NATO SURGE IN KANDAHAR
BY Khalil Nouri
As the U.S. gears up for the operation in Kandahar the plans have hit a bit of a snag. There’s a dispute raging between the U.S. military and civilian sides of the war, believe it or not, over development aid as how to bring electricity to Kandahar. Also, as viewed by many Afghans—specifically the Kandaharis— the deeply unpopular British forces dating back from the first Afghan-Anglo war (1839), soon to lead in the street fighting inside the city. In the mix of all these daunting challenges comes the “tribal power manipulation and intrigue” of the Karzai clan and family, which is a major obstacle for the upcoming operation to rid insurgency. And, it is extremely exacerbating stability in the entire Pashtun tribal structure in Afghanistan.
Operation “Omaid” (Dari and Pashto for Hope)—now revised to an unknown codename—is a military operation by international and Afghan forces, planned for June 2010, to push the Taliban out of their stronghold of Kandahar. It is part of the overall US-led strategy to end the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year; and is designed to steadily build momentum in the months ahead for a target U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It will be conducted in the wake of the coalition’s offensive in Helmand Province that focused on Marja, codenamed Operation “Mushtarak” (Dari and Pashto for Together).
Despite resentment towards the operation by elders in a tribal gathering in Kandahar on April 4, NATO forces still intend to move forward and launch the mission in a few days. That said; some Afghans believe that there are culture-rooted predicaments that could cause uphill battles in the effort to win hearts and minds, and possibly cause failures for NATO in Kandahar.
DEEP BRITISH DISLIKE
For three centuries Kandahar has played a pivotal role in Afghan politics, even hosting a royal dynasty. There has always been fierce resentment towards foreign occupation; and religiously it is seen as a sacred shrine for containing the cloak of the Prophet Mohammad.
In the aftermath of a British defeat in the second Afghan-Anglo War, the city was handed under an exit accord to my great grandfather (Nour Mohammad Khan), then governor of Kandahar in 1883.
Of course, he never foresaw that the British would eventually to be exiting the very same Afghan city for a fourth time; and would again be handing it over to the Afghan government; although this time as a NATO partner awaiting an end to war.
NATO foreign ministers decided last week to stage a withdrawal of British troops from districts in Helmand province;
showing them on their way to Kandahar. This means that these troops could be the last to leave Afghanistan, after a new “road map” for handing over control to Afghan forces that may not include the southern volatile provinces.
However, the operation could not be more inappropriately named—with the codename “Omaid”—because Britain is strongly viewed by many Kandaharis as a powerful, manipulative, scheming and satanic nation. Any British deployment to Kandahar is likely to be met with deep local mistrust dating back to the second Afghan-Anglo War.
The Battle of Maiwand, where Afghan forces defeated the British army west of Kandahar in 1880, is one of the proudest moments for Afghans. That battle also created one of Pashtun folklore’s greatest heroines.
When Afghan lines were about to break under British fire, a young woman named “Malalai” who followed her fiancé and father who were in the Afghan army, exhorted her countrymen to fight to the last.
The tale says the Afghans rallied after she shouted: “Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!” It was Malalai’s words that gave the Afghan soldiers the motivation and spirit to continue in battle and eventually defeat the British.
Therefore, many Afghans in the South believe that revenge is the main motivation for Britain’s current involvement in Afghanistan.
If the cycle of violence is to continue, then the cause may be given in an old Hindu prayer quote requesting,”the deliverance from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the vengeance of the Afghan.”
That is why the insurgency in Afghanistan will continue on.
Although nothing in the universe can travel at the speed of light, yet we have moved in the opposite direction, or have resolved to just stand still in the effort to bring electricity to Afghanistan; and if the father of electricity Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before he made the electric light, the West has failed right from the outset, and repeatedly over the last nine years, to turn the lights on in Afghanistan. But, why be discouraged over “spilled milk” when the window of opportunity has long gone, so let’s take a crack at it anyway!
The recent war of words between the top U.S. General in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, and U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, over how to bring electricity to Kandahar (before the upcoming military operation takes place) has escalated to the level where people in Kandahar are overheard expressing two of their famous mythical proverbs, “Agility is the work of the devil” and “Patience is bitter, but fruit is sweet.” Both meanings are easily translated into: “Rushing is no good” and,”All things come to one who waits.” In this case, General McChrystal’s “quick fix” (buying 200 million dollars worth of generators and millions of gallons of diesel fuel) falls under the first. And Ambassador Eikenberry’s “long endurance fix” (to refurbish the existing 150 megawatts capacity hydroelectric dam Kajaki in Northern Helmand province) falls under hpw the second. In hindsight, the public mood is a mix; some are in agreement and some resent both approaches.
But those in Kandahar, that I know, are not in favor of quick fixes for instant gratification; conversely, any development has to be sustained by Afghans over the long term—so do it the right way at the very outset.
However, the Western perspective and attitude appears to be, “if nice things are done for the Afghans, they will rally to us and solve our problems with diminished violence.” This is not guaranteed to work. Fiercely traditional Kandahar is the Taliban’s birthplace. Hence, membership is a family affair, and Afghans don’t turn against their own kind just because the lights stay on longer. This is the reality.
KARZAI’S “POPALZAI” CLAN HAS CAUSED AN IMBALANCE IN KANDAHAR’S TRIBAL STRUCTURE.
The tribe is “the” underlying social factor, specifically in Kandahar; but its importance for Kandahar’s politics and security can be overestimated. Kandahar’s tribes are not unified political structures. However, almost all political leaders in Kandahar claim to be tribal elders. Even the half-brother to President Karzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, insists in media interviews that he is a tribal elder. But few influential actors in Kandahar derive their influence from their position as tribal leaders. Control over guns, money, and connections to the state have become far more important. Overwhelmingly, Kandahar’s politics fuel insurgency, alienate the population from the government, and deprive the NATO operations of reliable partners.
Evidently, the Karzai family from the “Popalzai” sub-clan of “Durani” confederacy is the key to politics in Kandahar. Therefore, Ahmad Wali Karzai has, with the support of family members, built a political and commercial empire. He is now the major powerbroker to influence and undermine other tribes.
Therefore, this is the root cause of instability, and power grabbing by these means lies at the center of the intense political competition among the mentioned leading clan family and other tribes. Instead of seeking balance and stability, they [Karzai’s clan] outmaneuver their political rivals through extensive alliances to establish themselves as the undisputed leaders of the region. These schemes have far-reaching consequences and result in damaging harmony and national unity in Afghanistan.
The then leading “Mohammadzai” clan of the” Durani” confederacy—during the late King Zahir Shah and prior—was able to keep the tribal balance skillfully intact in Kandahar. This was not just because of its prominence in the collective tribal hierarchy, but also its continued minor presence in Kandahar where other tribes did not feel threatened by their existence. Whereas, now it has a disproportionate influence akin to other tribes; now all are under the influence of one clan [Karzai’s]. Again, this is a recipe for civil strife, insurgency rage and ultimately NATO’s absolute failure in Afghanistan.
KARZAI’S CONTINUED BLAME GAME WILL BE A MAJOR HURDLE FOR THE OPERATION
In a shura, or council, with tribal elders in Kandahar on April 4, the message from the tribesmen was that they are not ready for any major military assault—Mr. Karzai assured them it would not start without their support and he recognized the vast resentment for the operation. He is now sidelining himself from the complex challenges –militarily, politically and culturally—and is very much in phase with the elders. Despite the tribal resentment and Karzai’s modest position, the joint NATO and ANA operation will move forward but on the condition that the U.S. military and civilian officials cannot discuss any of the details of the pending operation except for just outlines of the offensive.
That said, if the operation were to fail, Karzai will be given credit for his attempts at harmony with the tribal elders, which would be a huge political gain for his hardball attitude towards Washington. And if it turned out to be a success, he will be declared a winner as well.
Moreover, Hamid Karzai did indirectly boost the U.S. and NATO military commanders confidence to proceed with the operation through his half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai who (a big challenge to the operation) is the head of Kandahar’s provincial council. He openly pledged his support on April 27 (to use his influence to help secure Kandahar) for NATO operations against the Taliban.
Therefore, in case of an unsuccessful outcome to this operation, all of this intrigue could just be the behavior similar to the recent presidential election “blame game”; a “can of worms” of “he said she said” scenario, and more importantly a huge preparation for the operation’s failure.
Despite Afghanistan’s long history of decentralized power, the constitution that the United States helped craft for the post-Taliban era gives the Afghan president vast power at all levels of government. This has caused problems for the Obama administration as it has become disenchanted with Karzai and sought unsuccessfully to work around him.
In a recent damning U.S. Department of Defense document, “only a quarter of what is regards as key regions in Afghanistan support the government of President Hamid Karzai.” His reputation has drastically plummeted following repeated accusations from the U.S. and other nations that he has allowed unchecked corruption.
His ineffectiveness, corruptness and unwillingness to challenge the powerful warlords and drug lords has not only alienated a significant portion of the Afghan population but has also paralyzed his ability to govern.
Finally, of all the above factors for an unsuccessful operation in Kandahar, Karzai and his family are the main hindrances, but we Afghans believe the Afghan War is still winnable if the United States clearly and wholeheartedly redefines its mission in Afghanistan by listening to us Afghans who genuinely—apply cultural and tribal knowledge—know what will and what will not work.
Khalil Nouri is the cofounder of New World Strategies Coalition Inc., a native think tank for nonmilitary solution studies for Afghanistan. www.nwscinc.org He contributes regularly to Opinion-Maker.Org