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McChrystal: Kandahar Operation Will Be 'Slow, Rising Tide' Of Security

  • RFE/RL

A U.S. Air Force CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off from Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City on May 11.

A U.S. Air Force CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off from Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City on May 11.

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan says this summer's planned operation to rid Kandahar of the Taliban will not put the city's population unduly at risk.

In Washington to accompany the visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, General Stanley McChrystal told reporters on May 13 that clearing the Taliban from Kandahar is central to winning the war in Afghanistan.

"Our operational priority lies in securing southern Afghanistan, an area that includes Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban, and Helmand, an economic hub for the insurgency and for Afghanistan overall," McChrystal said.

General Stanley McChrystal (left) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai visit Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 13.
But he said the process of securing Kandahar city, with a population of some 500,000 people, will not resemble the kind of sudden frontal assault and street battles seen when NATO and Afghan forces took Marjah from the Taliban in February. He said a Marjah-style assault is not needed because the Taliban do not fully control Kandahar city as they did the much smaller town in Helmand Province.

"We are not using the term operation or major operations because that often brings to mind in people's psyche the idea of a D-Day and an H-Hour and an attack," McChrystal said. "Kandahar is not, in fact, controlled by the Taliban. So it is not a case of having to recapture an area under enemy control as Marjah was."

He told reporters at the Pentagon briefing that "the Taliban do not control the city. You can walk around the streets of Kandahar and there is business going on. It is a functioning city."

But, he noted, "there is not sufficient security in Kandahar city" today and it is a full sense of security that the Afghan government and the coalition now want to bring.

'Security Bubbles'

McChrystal did not detail when this summer's operation would begin or how it would proceed. But asked to describe his progress so far in securing parts of Helmand Province -- his first goal since taking command in Afghanistan in June -- he spoke of creating "security bubbles or security zones" that gradually widen over time.

A vendor sells ice cream in Kandahar city center.
He also stressed that any counterinsurgency operation must be a process sustained over a long period of time if it is to be successful. He said the process must not only involve clearing areas of insurgents but also delivering better governance.

"Counterinsurgency effort is long-term because, as I described, it is a process not an event," McChrystal said. "When we come into an area and we start to make a change in the security situation, we start to help the Afghans bring governance. It is halting and it is challenging. In an area where there has been very little capacity before, to introduce that is hard.

"And to convince the people is even harder because they watch the change in security, they watch the beginnings of governance, the beginnings of government, and they have to, as I put it in my statement, they have to see it to believe it. But they can't just see it once. They have to see it until they believe it is durable, until they believe it is real."

'Credible Performance'

McChrystal also suggested the Taliban could be expected to continue contesting Kandahar for months after the upcoming operation to clear the militia from the city.

Citing Marjah as an example, he said, "As a counterinsurgency force pushes out insurgents, their smart move is to contest that, to try to undermine what we have done. They can't come in and control Marjah like they did before. They can't raise the flag. They can't hold terrain.

"But they can try to convince the people that they are not secure [through] murders, night letters, taxation. They can try to send a message that says this won't last, the coalition will leave, the government of Afghanistan will leave. And this gets to the heart of us making a credible performance over time to convince the people."

McChrystal's assurance that the Kandahar operation will be a "process" and not a sudden military assault comes as another top U.S. official stressed the same note on May 13. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, said the strategy was not to "destroy Kandahar in the effort to save Kandahar."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who jointly appeared with Clinton, said he believes U.S. and Afghan officials have "adopted the right approach" for the city.

Karzai has frequently criticized coalition forces in the past over civilian deaths, a particularly sensitive point in relations between the Afghan government and NATO countries seeking to help secure the country. NATO forces say they make every effort to avoid noncombatant casualties.

written by Charles Recknagel, with agency reports

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