Afghanistan: Waiting for the Fight

Panjwayi, Afghanistan – Looking out from their hilltop vantage point, a group of Canadian soldiers can see the entire farming village below, nestled into a valley in the restive Kandahar province. Somewhere in the grape fields and mud huts, they know it’s a virtual certainty that an ambush is waiting for them or another Canadian patrol that’s also in the village.

Hiking back everyone is braced for the eventual burst of enemy gunfire, but after a nearly hour-long trek it seems it will end without incident. The other unit isn’t so lucky. Just as one unit marches through the base’s main gate, gunfire erupts in the distance. The other unit has walked into the ambush.

Fighting in Kandahar has continued to steadily intensify over the summer, despite a decision to delay the main offensive. But for many of the NATO forces responsible for actively patrolling the province, especially among the rank and file, frustration is mounting that they are still not putting enough pressure on insurgent groups in the area to make a serious difference.

“We’re going out and waiting for them to hit us and we’re not trying to hit them,” said Canadian Army Pvt. Mason Highmore.

Gaining control of an area like Kandahar’s Panjwayi district will likely take major clearing operations, which Pentagon officials have hinted are likely to come this fall. Meanwhile, commanders operating in the restive district say they are making progress against an increasingly desperate insurgency.

When coalition forces postponed a major summer offensive here, the mission focus shifted to the Hamkari initiative. Hamkari, which means “cooperation” in Dari, aims to build security, governance and economic opportunity in Kandahar through civil-military operations. The strategy holds that a major offensive will be ineffective without these civic elements firmly in place to ensure lasting stability.

“Before we even think or consider going on the offensive, we need to consider how to hold the gains that we’ve already retained. As the Canadian Army, we’ve learned that expansion without consolidation and without being able to affect the hold is useless, in fact it’s counterproductive,” said Canadian Army Maj. Steve Brown, who commands Oscar Company stationed in Kandahar’s Panjwayi district.

Critical to success not just in Kandahar, but also throughout all Afghanistan, coalition forces must strengthen local governments, make headway in the fight against the Taliban and cut off Pakistan’s support of insurgents operating inside Afghanistan, said Barry R. Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“They need a high degree of success on all of these and they’re not enjoying much success on any of these. It appears, at least to the naked eye, that several of these problems are simply intractable. Why they think they’re going to have success on those problems, I don’t know,” he said. “The overall project has a limited probability of success.”

There is some discussion that the military may be waiting to conduct a major Kandahar offensive until after Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which ends on Sept. 10. Though Ramadan may be a factor, it’s likely one among many, said Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Marjah offensive, a new commander and questions about the merit of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, many issues will need to be addressed before the United States and its allies undertake a major operation in Kandahar.

“I would be surprised if there already isn’t a quite heated debate about how to go forward within the military leadership and the U.S. political leadership,” Harpviken said.

Despite the daunting task ahead, coalition forces are hoping that by focusing on population centers they can stop insurgents from gaining sway over the local population in the meantime.

When a similar strategy was applied in Iraq in 2007, coalition forces there were helped in large part by locals who began self-policing their neighborhoods. In Afghanistan, there have been several isolated incidents of community policing programs that successfully drove out insurgents, but it has yet to become a trend. NATO forces here still have to rely on themselves and Afghan security forces to deal with the insurgent attacks while trying to find a way to encourage Afghans to protect their own villages when Afghan or international forces aren’t there.

“We’re keeping the insurgents out of the villages, or at least attempting to, and letting locals know that our presence is going to be in your villages so you can either work with us or work against us,” said Canadian Army Capt. John Doig, a platoon leader in Oscar Company.

It appears that at least in some ways the strategy is having an effect on the insurgents, said Canadian Army Capt. Rob Kidnie, an infantry officer who analyzes intelligence for Oscar Company. Recently, insurgents have increased the use of fear tactics with local villagers, smashing mobile phones to stop them from covertly acting as informants and executing locals, which Kidnie said might indicate they’re beginning to come under pressure.

Still, it’s often difficult to interpret these types of incidents, as they could also mean that the insurgency is simply becoming more aggressive for other reasons.

Villagers “fear the insurgents, but then they also fear us to an extent. That’s why we’re trying to convince them, through working with the ANA [Afghan National Army] that we’re here to help and that the Afghan security forces will still be here even when we’re gone. If they trust us now and realize how effective the ANA is and can become, hopefully they’ll fear the insurgents less,” Kidnie said.

For those on the ground, operating in the villages day-to-day, these changes aren’t always obvious. A number of soldiers in Oscar Company are on their second or third deployment in Kandahar and even though they’re experienced with counterinsurgency, this more patient approach is a difficult change of pace.

“A lot of the guys want to take the more aggressive route and maybe three or four years ago that’s the route we would have taken, but now we’re training the ANA to pretty much take over for when we leave so the aggressive approach isn’t necessary anymore,” says Canadian Army Master Cpl. Cory Hanrahan, now serving his second tour in Afghanistan.

If and until a major clearing operation begins, soldiers say the mission’s tempo leaves little time for soldiers to focus on the big picture of what they’re doing.

“We do what we need to do here. We have a job to do day-to-day regardless of whether there’s going to be an offensive going on in the future or not,” said Canadian Army Pvt. Jason Melow. “We’re not just sitting around waiting.”