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Is It Really Such a ‘Shift’ in Strategy for Kandahar?

This New York Times piece about a “shift” in the NATO-Afghan plan to secure Kandahar from Taliban insurgents to a focus on civilian efforts is kind of overstated. It’s true that over the last couple of weeks U.S. and Afghan officials have de-emphasized military operations and stopped using the word “offensive” to describe their approach to the city of 850,000 Afghans. And I haven’t ever been to southern Afghanistan, so I take reporter Rod Norland at his word when he alludes to background briefings earlier this spring that left the impression that there would be some state-change in U.S. military presence in the city.

But for the past several weeks, U.S. officials have described a “process” for an incremental troop buildup in Kandahar and described military activities in terms of what they won’t resemble: the invasions of Fallujah in 2004 or Marja in February. That’s to assuage local fears of disruptive, bloody urban confrontation. And from the start, McChrystal has portrayed military action in the city as secondary to political and governance activities, rather using than the typical “clear, hold, build, transfer” shorthand typical of recent military operations. “One of the things we’ll be doing in the shaping is working with political leaders to try to get an outcome that makes sense,” McChrystal said in March at his first Pentagon briefing on Kandahar. “That would then be supported by security operations, and that will, in some cases, be increased partnering inside the city with the Afghan National Police.” He did not use the word “offensive.” Civilian officials in Washington have provided similar background briefings for months on civilian-driven political and economic action in Kandahar.

It’s possible that now Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his local commander, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, are overcorrecting, and setting too low an expectation amongst the populace for normalcy when they’re about to have 11,850 NATO forces and 8,500 Afghan soldiers and policy on their doorsteps by September. But that itself follows Norland’s strongest piece of evidence that McChrystal adjusted his strategy for the city: locals didn’t want big, disruptive military activities. McChrystal’s staff has described a months-long and ongoing process of engagement with local leaders to gain a sense of their degree of support for any foreign military presence (and, indeed, for local security forces, too), and to plan military action accordingly. “What remains to be done is determining the nature and scope of the effort,” McChrystal spokesman Tadd Sholtis told me in April, discussing outreach to Kandahar notables. Seems prudent — and preferable to deciding on a course of action and then pretending that the locals backed it.

More worrisome in Norland’s story is how disconnected the effort actually appears. Afghan civilian officials do not understand the strategy for the Kandahar “process” as their NATO colleagues do.

Views vary widely as to just when the military part will start. General Zazai says it will begin in July but take a break for Ramadan in mid-August and resume in mid-September. A person close to Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, says it will not commence until winter, or at least not until harvests end in October.

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