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Fear Grows In Kandahar Ahead Of Expected NATO Offensive

Kandaharis say they are pessimistic that any new military campaign can solve the city's problems.
Kandaharis say they are pessimistic that any new military campaign can solve the city's problems.
Kandaharis live in an ancient, vibrant city that vies with Kabul as Afghanistan's cultural, political, and economic heart.

But it is a fiercely contested city that has not known normal life for many years.

By day, the metropolis of half a million people is in the hands of the city government headed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's controversial brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai. Corruption is rampant, residents complain, and most police units are run by local power brokers.

By night, many districts are under the control of the Taliban. Assassinations and kidnappings are common of people working for or cooperating with the government.

Now there is still greater fear ahead of the major NATO military operation planned for this summer. No one knows when the operation will start. The only hints are occasional leaks from Western military officials saying it could be June. But it's unclear what form the operation will take, apart from U.S. generals suggesting it will not be a full assault on the city but rather a "rising tide of security."

In the absence of better information, ordinary Kandaharis say they fear the worst. And they are pessimistic that any new military campaign -- no matter how carefully planned -- can solve the city's problems.

Kandahari writer Abdul Ahmad Mohamadyar expresses the concerns of many local residents. "We have always had military operations in the past nine years in Afghanistan -- this is not something new," he says. "Only the people have suffered from such operations and only the people had to bear the burden of them."

He cites the military operation in neighboring Helmand Province, where NATO forces recently evicted the Taliban from the town of Marjah, as a negative example.

"If we look at the operations in Helmand, people suffered, they lost their homes and became hungry," Mohamadyar says. "I don't believe the military operation in Kandahar, even as part of a new strategy, will bear positive results or solve the problems of insecurity or weaken the strength of the antigovernment forces."

Fear And Flight

Comparisons of the upcoming operation with Marjah -- where there was a full-scale shoot-out in the streets -- are frequent among Kandaharis despite official assurances that no such thing will happen.

A policeman cleans a portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai before a flag-raising in Marjah on February 25.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has said there is no "D-Day" or "H-Hour" for Kandahar.

Those are terms which refer to storming an entrenched enemy, as happened in Marjah in February. But somehow those reassurances are lost in translation as people worry first about the safety of their own families and friends.

One reason is the refugees. Thousands of people came here from Helmand to escape the Marjah operation, and most are still living in camps outside the city. They are afraid to return to their home areas because they were heavily mined by the Taliban ahead of the fighting. And they fear that the Taliban, who are still active in Helmand, will retaliate against them.

Daily, too, several extended families arrive in Kandahar from districts in Kandahar Province where there have been NATO operations over the past year. These newcomers feel they will be safer in the center of a major city than in their hometowns when NATO is expected to try to secure much of Kandahar Province as well as its capital this summer.

Many Kandaharis say the only way to stabilize Kandahar is by giving it a more effective government that can lure the Taliban to the negotiating table.

"So long as we have no government administration, we cannot have influence among the people," says Ahmad Shah Spahr, head of the Peace Caravan civil-society organization in Kandahar. "I believe you can never force people or impose something on them. You cannot govern with the force of a gun. You must conquer the hearts of people. If there is a good government that can get the hearts and minds of the people, in that case even the enemies will trust such a government and would start peace talks."

A recent U.S. Army-commissioned survey of almost 2,000 Kandahar residents found similar feelings are widespread. The study found Kandaharis favor negotiations with the Taliban over continued fighting by a margin of 19 to 1. And four of five respondents said most members of the Taliban would stop fighting if given jobs. The study was conducted in December by Massachusetts-based Glevum Associates.

Goal Of Negotiations?

Yet if most Kandaharis want greater space for political solutions, it is precisely that space that seems to be shrinking ever more rapidly ahead of the planned offensive. On April 19, gunmen shot to death Kandahar Deputy Mayor Azizullah Yarmal as he knelt in prayer in one of the city's large mosques. The fact that he was one of the few government officials widely admired in Kandahar for his honesty made the assassination still more discouraging to any hopes for normalcy in the city.

A Taliban spokesman told media afterward that he was killed for working with the city's "puppet government."

NATO and Afghan officials hope that the coming offensive will weaken the Taliban enough to end these kinds of assassinations and, ultimately, drive many of the militants to the negotiating table.

U.S. troops guard a road in Kandahar in April.
To do that, it is clear that a major force will have to deployed. Carl Forsberg, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, has studied the situation in Kandahar closely. He tells RFE/RL the offensive is likely to involve some 25,000 troops for Kandahar province.

"In terms of total numbers, including support troops, it is probably going to be about 12,000 to 15,000 coalition troops and then perhaps another 10,000 to 12,000 Afghan troops who will be involved," Forsberg says. "So you are seeing over 25,000 troops total, with both the coalition and Afghan forces."

'Permanent Presence'

He expects most of those forces to remain in Kandahar Province for months.

"It's going to be a permanent presence," Forsberg says. "We are not must going to move in and move out but we are going to move in, set up bases with the population and then presumably stay there for a long time until the Afghan security forces can take over security. So I think you will see the level of troops that are there will be something close to the level of troops that are going there in the summer [for the offensive] will be staying for at least a year in Kandahar."

The point at which the troops can withdraw will be when the Kandahar police can take over the job of maintaining security in the city -- something they are unable to do today. Forsberg says that will involve first "cleaning up" the police force, by rooting out corruption and establishing clear chains of command that do not exist today.

Changes like getting the Taliban to the negotiating table, ending corruption, and establishing good governance are what ordinary people in Kandahar long for.

But after years of wishing, the residents of this city can be forgiven if now they have more uncertainty than trust such things will come. And if, instead of hope, they mostly feel dread as the offensive looms.

Barakwal Myakhel is a RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Kandahar. Writer Charles Recknagel is based in Prague. RFE/RL Washington correspondent Richard Solash contributed to this report.

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