Campaign for Kandahar Won’t Look Like War

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 12 months ago

From the AP:

In the make-or-break struggle for Kandahar, birthplace of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency, U.S. commanders will try to pull off the military equivalent of brain surgery: defeating the militants with minimal use of force.

The goal of U.S.-led NATO forces will be to avoid inspiring support for the Taliban even as the coalition tries to root them out when the Kandahar operation begins in earnest next month.

The ancient silk road city — a dust-covered, impoverished jumble of one- and two-story concrete and mud brick — may not look like much of a prize.

But Kandahar, with a population of more than a million, was once the Taliban’s informal capital and an al-Qaida stronghold. It has served for centuries as a smuggler’s crossroads and trading hub linking southern Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent.

President Barack Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy focuses on protecting population centers such as Kandahar from Taliban predation, with the hope of building support for the center government in Kabul.

The Taliban are deeply embedded in the local population, raising the risk of civilian casualties in major clashes. Neither are the Taliban regarded as an alien force. For many in Kandahar, they are neighbors, friends and relatives.

Haji Raaz Mohammad, a 48-year-old farmer from Kandahar, said he has never understood why the U.S. is trying to drive out the militants.

“I don’t know why they are doing it,” he said. “The Taliban are not outsiders. They are our own people.”

Because the task in Kandahar is so delicate, U.S. commanders talk about squeezing rather than driving out the Taliban. The military has struggled to come up with a description of the upcoming fight, avoiding terms like campaign, operation and battle because” because those words and others have annoyed Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

So the U.S. is calling it “Hamkari Baraye Kandahar,” which translates as “Cooperation for Kandahar.” Karzai simply calls it a “process.”

Whatever it’s called, U.S. military leaders say that unless it succeeds, the rest of the plan for pacifying Afghanistan is hollow.

[ … ]

Victory in Cooperation for Kandahar may be hard to define. Eventually, U.S. military officials say, Afghans there must be persuaded that they can trust the government not to fleece them and to keep the gangsters and warlords at bay.

First of all, this won’t work in six months, which is the stated milestone for at least signs of success in Kandahar.  But we have covered this notion of public trust in thugs and criminals, and concluded that it’s not likely to happen.  Joshua Foust wrote “ISAF faces a number of political challenges as well. A majority of Afghan watchers point to Ahmed Wali Karzai as one of the biggest barriers to smooth operations in the city—he demands a cut of most commerce that takes place in the area, and the DEA alleges he has ties to the illegal narcotics industry. However, because he is the President’s brother, there is no chance of removing him from power. Similarly, Kandahar is, in effect, run by a group of families organized into mafia-style crime rings. They skim profits off almost all reconstruction projects in the city, and have developed a lucrative trade ripping off ISAF initiatives. They sometimes violently clash with each other.”

Michael Hughes weighed in saying:

One senior NATO official had calculated that the “Karzai cartel” was making more than a billion dollars a year off the Afghanistan war via lucrative contracts and sub-contracting spin-offs in convoy protection, construction, fuel, food and security. And in the process they are alienating the very people they are supposed to protect who are so distraught with AWK’s corruption that a majority of Kandaharis are now supporting the insurgency.

Reiterating my own counsel for Kandahar:

In order to win Kandahar, we must not run from fights; we must destroy the drug rings (not the local farmers), and especially destroy the crime families, including killing the heads of the crime families; we must make it so uncomfortable for people to give them cuts of their money that they fear us more than they fear Karzai’s criminal brother; we must make it so dangerous to be associated with crime rings, criminal organizations, and insurgents that no one wants even to be remotely associated with them; and we must marginalize Karzai’s brother …

Anyone associated with drug rings, criminal activity or the insurgency must be a target, from the highest to the lowest levels of the organization, and this without mercy.  Completely without mercy.  There should be no knee-jerk reversion to prisons, because the corrupt judicial system in Afghanistan will only release the worst actors to perpetrate the worst on their opponents.  This robust force projection must be conducted by not only the SOF, but so-called general purpose forces (GPF).  The population needs to see the very same people conducting patrols and talking with locals that they see killing criminals and insurgents.  This is imperative.

My own counsel and the picture painted by NATO leadership above couldn’t be more disparate.  McChrystal is giving us six months to convince the indigenous population to turn on their own relatives and embrace criminals who steal from them.  The strategy will fail.


  1. On June 4, 2010 at 9:40 am, Warbucks said:

    The only way for Americans to be as hardened, tough, and righteously judgmental a force as your are counseling for the Kandahar campaign will be to do it all publicly.

    We are a democracy. We don’t send our main forces in and start executing mafia style everyone tainted by family blood-ties and that’s pretty much the only logical ends of such an order once the process starts. There is no ending to that kind of madness. Where does the enforcer otherwise draw the line? Your plan is not clear enough to work. It will lead to huge killing sprees before the fear controls the population. Then what have we achieved?

    Also, you know far better than me, that a western soldier from a democratic authority must maintain a sense that his personal actions remain at all times justified and moral.

    My thoughts are, dear Wali (and the gang), bless its barbaric heart, may instead have talk to the hand of special black ops to face early retirement and roll over their 401K… so to speak…. Russian style. But we must not dig too deep into Wali’s net works beyond the Afghan borders less we are prepared to embarrass ourselves in the process. They are only the other end of what we do over here. There are very big European and Western Hemispheric families that would be brought down, with names we all have grown to love if you dig too deep. It’s just that plain, freaking simple, the way things are.

    This is going to be as much a job for our super-hero, black ops, as it is for our super-hero mainline ground grunts that maintain our public face for justice.

    Wali may need to be the new poster boy for this operation. That would focus everyone’s attention long enough to do what ever it is we do next.

  2. On June 4, 2010 at 10:27 am, Herschel Smith said:


    I said nothing about executing mafia-style. You’ve slightly misread my counsel. Winning the campaign is not “madness.” As for when this all ends, that’s easy. When the enemy is dead or decides to give up.

    Edit: As for the refusal to take my counsel, then my suspicion is that TSAlfabet would say bring them all home. Good men will die for nothing because the strategy will fail. I say the same thing.

  3. On June 4, 2010 at 11:42 am, Warbucks said:

    You make an important clarification. Thank you. The more I think about Wali’s role the more it makes sense to elevate Wali as the poster boy for a national scape goat for cultural change.

    If Wali and the upper echelon suddenly, mysteriously, just disappear, would such an event precipitate a paradigm shift within the culture? What then would fill the void?

  4. On June 4, 2010 at 1:13 pm, BruceR said:

    Not to be a downer, but is a plan based on treating Kandaharis’ “own relatives” (and it’s true, everyone really does have at least an extended relative with drug or insurgent ties) “completely without mercy” really any more likely to succeed than the plan you’re critiquing based on the population turning on them? It’s the same people with the same relatives. ISAF and the Afghan government are asking law-abiding Kandaharis to disavow their relatives, which seems unrealistic, sure, but you’re saying those same people will more readily tolerate their relatives being subjected to a merciless fate (but not detention, which kind of rules out anything but death to my unlettered mind) at the hands of Western SOF. I don’t see how that generates the more compliant reaction you’re expecting, unless it’s out of straight-up fear of Western soldiers.

  5. On June 4, 2010 at 3:08 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Not a bad question, Bruce, but we fought our way through an indigenous insurgency (the relatives of relatives) in Anbar for three years, and did so in Fallujah in 2007 (with which I am most knowledgeable). We had to go through them to get to the 80 – 100 foreigners per month flowing across the Syrian border. Granted, the Marine Corps experience in Anbar was different than the British Army experience in Basra, the U.S. Army experience in other places, etc. The Marines do things the Marine way, I understand. But still, we have shown that beating an indigenous insurgency can work. It can’t by attempting to ‘love’ them to the table or by giving them ‘stuff’. It has to be costly for them, or there is no success.

  6. On June 4, 2010 at 3:21 pm, davod said:

    What a wonderfull war! I get tired of reading how we can win without fighting the ratbags. Forgotton in the emphasis on not attacking ratbags because you may hurt civilians, or the ratbags may be related to the civilians, is that the ratbags will come back and the civilians will do nothing if they do not see you are killing, yes Killing, off the ratbags.

  7. On June 5, 2010 at 8:19 am, TSAlfabet said:

    We just can’t seem to grasp the fundamental truth in dealing with determined enemies: they must be beaten mercilessly until they know they have been beaten.

    Only then will any of the follow-on work (schools, services, clinics…) make sense.

    We are cart before the horse in A-stan and everyone knows it, but the media and the Administration have this game of pretending that the bad guys are just misunderstood or not sufficiently engaged in a dialogue.

    Read Victor Davis Hanson, “Carnage and Culture.” ( The West has consistently beaten enemies when it mobilizes citizen soldiers with the aim of unambiguous victory.

    It is absolutely maddening to see all the transferable lessons learned in Iraq being thrown in the garbage in A-stan.

    I am increasingly of a mind that the U.S. should never deploy its military unless we are prepared to crush the enemy quickly and completely. This “minimal use of force” crap has no place in the American lexicon. If that means sacrificing social spending in order to increase the size of our combat forces so we have overwhelming force, then anything less is an abdication of the federal government’s primary responsibility to protect the people.

    For some reason, even a liberal Democrat like Roosevelt had no problem unleashing total war on Germany and Japan, but we cannot shoot at Taliban if they drop their weapon and have their women carry it for them.

  8. On June 5, 2010 at 10:48 pm, Warbucks said:

    We must not allow ourselves to play into the gravity well of total war, mercilessly beating the enemy, engaging the Balkins and playing the ever expaned on-ups-manship of Captain America. It’s not a matter of just bad universal karma, although that is surely reason in itself, it’s a matter that all our cultures (if not our countries) are sufficiently scientifically advanced, the world is too unstable: North Korea wants to fight everyone, Russia with 22000 nukes, sees Iran as their oil reserve and has as much said so at the highest levels, India is too nervous over Pakistan, China wants to expand, we are at one of the highest moments of brinkmanship the world has probably known …. and if we did not have an enemy …… count on it, lets call the Illuminati, would fabricate another enemy for us faster than you can say Goldman Sachs.

    We have got to work this energy level down in this environment. Making examples of the top tier criminals (the Wali’s of the world) is far and away a better way to bring about change provided we plan to fill the voids created by their early retirements.

    If someone invaded the US successfully, would you not see them as an workable partner if they (a) enforced fair democracy, (b) exposed and then took out corrupt families and officials? (c) help build roads, schools, energy plants, and communities not discriminating against our race, color, or creed as long as we were non-violent, and (d) provided us our liberty and free-will to get us back on our feet?

    I think working from the top down is the strategic emphasis we must use to mold the strategies for a victory.

  9. On June 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    Ah, that Warbucks sense of humor again. Keeps me chuckling.

    (You are kidding, right?)

  10. On June 6, 2010 at 11:53 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Um, Rich, maybe you had too much wine before you posted this. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    Yea, just like killing Zarqawi ended the insurgency in Anbar. Killing a few HVT doesn’t end the insurgency. What I am advocating is what we did in Iraq.

    Finally, I don’t believe in “Karma.” I don’t believe that you can prove that such a thing exists.

  11. On June 7, 2010 at 10:11 am, Warbucks said:

    As of this weekend, the reports are we have taken out 34 of the 42 top al-Qaida, significantly hampering their war-making abilities by breaking up the organization and flow of financing through their terror networks.

    If we can effectively work from the top down, there are balance points that swing open opportunities for cessation of struggle. I’m surprised “the list” is only 42 names long (According to the International Crisis Group think-tank, the brain trust for what you might call The Illuminati

    The terror networks apparently may (or may not) be motivated by theosophical beliefs but do function as economic support groups.

    Instinctively, it seems to me “the list” needs to be expanded considerably, with names on the list given publication not by the US, but by Karzai, or whatever replacement government is in power, shifting the moral authority to define right and wrong publicly into the hands of the duly elected, where it needs to reside, if we are to disengage the main body of our ground forces.

    A tell-tail indicator of how important “the list” is, aside from what we read, would be the extent “the list” is touted in Afghanistan. If this list is for our domestic consumption only and not touted in Afghanistan, then it belies a domestic propaganda effort by the Obama Administration to cover its retreat. If on the other hand, the list grows, and his touted in Afghanistan but A-stan’s own elected, it becomes a significant tool of persuasion useful in the cause of shutting down enthusiasm for continued terror.

    So the data points I would like to read would be from some of you in-country participants and contributors to The Captain’s Journal, that reports the coverage, if any, within the Afghan media (such as it might be) as to (a) how many times “the list” is mentioned, (c) what context it is mentioned, (c) what frequency it is mentioned….. if at all.

    If “the list” is real and not just for our domestic consumption, it should probably be 10 times larger. Expanding it, will also be a clue to its authenticity.

    I accept your challenge to prove karma. As the recipient of the challenge it seems appropriate for me to define the weapons of proof: You and I meet on the field of discourse in front of witnesses in the afterlife where we will together pose this question to the ruling counsels and submit ourselves the their revelations imparted to us.

    Fringe is becoming the mainstream.

  12. On June 7, 2010 at 10:26 am, Warbucks said:

    And this is shaping up to be a poor year for wine in California as there is (a) too much, late season rain causing extra trimming (expensive labor) required on the lush growth to refocus energy into the fruit away from the leaf. (b) residing moisture around the grapes from the rain and cool temperatures leads quickly in the warming days to mold which destroys much of the harvest. The average large winery (200 + acres) will need to add somewheres around 10% to the delivery price to break even in a market where prices have receded over 20% (I’m guessing). I confess I buy my wine like a bargain basement shopper. I walk down the isle and pick out all the marked down bargain prices first, then look at what I’ve got in the basket second. I’ve never been accused of being a connoisseur.

  13. On June 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I responded to the issue of Karma because you brought it up. What I should have said is please drop all discussions of Karma. This is a military blog. When I start a blog on philosophy and theology, I’ll debate your views. It won’t be based on some imaginary “council,” but on solid logic. Until then, please keep all discussions relevant to the topic.

    Next, as for your views on HVTs, recall that we tried exactly what you’re talking about in Iraq, and have done this for eight years in Afghanistan. It doesn’t work. See – oh, I don’t know – the last thousand posts I have written. Insurgencies must be destroyed from the ground up, not the top down. To be sure, when a HVT is killed it helps, but what you’re trying to do is find an easy way to avoid doing COIN. There isn’t one. Engage or come home.

    On the final point, neither am I a connoisseur.

  14. On June 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm, TSAlfabet said:

    With this Administration, the operative rule is to assume that every announcement and speech is for ‘public consumption only’, i.e., deception, propaganda etc… The fact that Odierno said it only leads me to believe that he believes it is true (as Odierno is a stand-up guy) so far as that goes, but his job, as commander in Iraq, is not to make the policy but only to carry out the task handed to him. No doubt but that the Administration needs to point to something it has done that is not a disaster, even if that ‘something’ is going to lead to victory. As the Captain points out, the U.S. has been killing off HVT’s since 2003 and it has never been a turning point in and of itself.

    Furthermore, every indication is that the overall strategy of Al Qaeda/the Taliban/Islamofascists in general is a long, long war of attrition in which they calculate that they have the demographics and will to outlast us. As far as demographics go, they would seem to be right. As far as willpower… the Administration is giving very clear signals to the world that we do not have the stomach for just about any fight that requires more than remote-controlled bombing.

    While I do not necessarily believe that every fight needs to be ‘total war’ as in WWII, we certainly know how to bring the full hammer down (Gulf War I and Gulf War II) when we are determined to do so. In other words, you calibrate the amount of force needed to achieve a quick, overwhelming victory to the task at hand. Grenada did not require 5 U.S. divisions. Afghanistan certainly needs more than 40,000 extra troops.

    And I am sick of hearing about ‘fatigue’ in the armed forces from frequent deployments. As the Captain has mentioned numerous times, we have no lack of Marines idling away on float and at Pendleton. And if that’s not enough, we need to either re-instate a draft in which the draftee sludge would be tasked with doing all the rear-echelon support work for zero pay while the professional forces take up the tip of the spear, or re-allocate defense spending to increasing combat forces and equipment. At least that would be one way to reduce unemployment in the short term.

    Finally, as to Warbucks’ point about the world being on the brink of war… There is nothing so provocative as weakness. Why are Turkey and Iran making noise about forcefully breaking the Gaza blockade? Because they sense that the U.S. will not come to Israel’s defense. Why are the Russians once again clawing over the Middle East, signing nuclear deals and arms deals for the first time since 1989? Because the U.S. has signaled weakness and retreat and Russia is gladly filling a vacuum. Same with China and North Korea. It is historical fact that Germany in the 1930’s would never have dared to re-occupy the Ruhr and Czechoslovakia if France and Britain had mobilized and put up resistance. Weakness, vacillation, “engagement”… all these are inducements to tyrants like Iran, Syria, Turkey, China, Russia and North Korea. And when countries like Brazil and Venezuela feel free to tweak the U.S. nose we are in for a world of hurt.

  15. On June 7, 2010 at 7:29 pm, BruceR said:

    Herschel: another analytical tack to take might be that our footprint is simply too large. We’re pouring an absolutely ungodly amount of money into the economy of Afghanistan, and it’s responding like every gold rush town in history ever has.

    Now in the colonial days, you’d offset this by running the administration, the courts, etc., too. But we’re not doing that, because we can’t be seen at home to be interfering with local sovereignty and becoming occupiers. Your own advocacy of killing people’s relatives is because you recognize you can’t jail them the way we’d want to, given our current level of control over the Afghan government. (Even if the courts were fair, no one jailed because foreigners want him to be is ever going to stay long behind bars, in any country, when the locals control the keys.)

    The upshot is a lot of Afghan society really has no interest in the war going away, because it’s fantastically lucrative for them for ISAF forces to remain and pay wartime prices for transport, interpreters, food, and everything else.

    Iraq was a little different because it was already an oil economy… the current $50 billion a year from oil in peacetime is still tempting enough for some to stimulate peace breaking out. (And before you say it, $4 billion a year in opium for a population of the same size isn’t quite the same thing). But in Afghanistan you just have everyone taking advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for enrichment before it all goes down the drain. Arguably you’d need a country as fantastically rich and recovery-capable as Iraq for third-party COIN to have the trends run in the right direction.

    But in the Afghan context, I’m tending to conclude if any plan doesn’t involve a huge lightening of the Western footprint in the country, it’s not going to work. I would even say the expenditure of colonialist-level amounts of COIN money without colonialist-level control in a deeply impoverished country seems unlikely to work anywhere, no matter what the local tactics are.

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You are currently reading "Campaign for Kandahar Won’t Look Like War", entry #5071 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Kandahar and was published June 3rd, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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