Last Stand in Kandahar

Can the military’s massive counterinsurgency gamble salvage the Afghan war?
Photograph by Matthieu AikinsA Canadian soldier on guard duty at Camp Nathan Smith looks out over Kandahar City

It was the Fourth of July, and it was forty-five degrees outside. Under the blazing noonday sun, a few dozen soldiers stood around on bare gravel. They were mostly Americans from the 10th Mountain Division, in their distinctive black cavalry hats, mixed with a handful of Canadian soldiers and a few bearded civilians in jeans. Facing their semicircle was the short, stocky figure of Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar.

We were at the Dand District Centre, a small compound in the heart of Deh-e Bagh, a village about five kilometres southwest of Kandahar City. Next to us stood the district police station and the headquarters of 1-71 Cavalry Squadron, an American armoured unit; behind us was the squat bulk of the district governor’s office. Dand District was one of the last areas in the southern province of Kandahar where Taliban insurgency — which a 2009 American intelligence report estimated to have grown fourfold in Afghanistan over the previous four yearsi — had yet to take root. In Vance’s opinion, this success resulted from the military’s focused application of counterinsurgency principles: bringing security to the people, separating them from the insurgency, and building up their government by supporting development.

Vance wished the assembled soldiers a happy Fourth of July, then took them through the story of how they had come to be standing there sweltering in the highlands of South Asia. As he saw it, the war could be understood in three phases: The first, he explained, began with the aftermath of September 11, when the US and its allies toppled the Taliban government and established a minimal troop presence in the country, then, in the face of a growing insurgency, stuck to its development and counterterrorism missions.

The second phase, he said, started in late 2005 with the expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) around the country. This phase was marked by the growing recognition that the conflict was a hot war against a resurgent guerrilla opponent. It featured pitched battles with Taliban fighters in the southii, and then, after the Taliban scattered, a drawn-out struggle against a campaign of bombings, ambushes, and assassinations. The Canadian contingent of 2,500 soldiers had barely hung on in Kandahar. “We didn’t lose, but we didn’t win either,” Vance lectured.

Then, with an influx of 30,000 American soldiers since late 2009, the war had escalated to its third phase. By summer’s end, all the “surge” strategy elements would be in place in the south, swelling foreign troop strength in Kandahar sixfold, to about 15,000. Battalions would be in place where once there had been only companies, or no military presence at all. The resources to carry out a proper, manpower-intensive counterinsurgency campaign were at hand. But this was just the beginning, Vance said.

“How long does it take to end an insurgency? Anyone care to guess?” he asked the soldiers. He turned to an American captain. Five years, the officer replied.

“Five years? Fifteen years. That’s how long it takes on average.” Vance paused to let that sink in. “We don’t have fifteen years. We’re in hurry-up mode.”

The public in the West, tired of a war that had dragged into its ninth year, was growing increasingly skeptical and clamouring for results. Nearly 2,000 Dutch personnel stationed in neighbouring Urozgan Province were leaving that summer, and the Canadians would follow in a year. President Obama was facing elections in November 2012, and the war would surely be a key campaign issue. Here in this district, where the situation had stabilized, was a glimmer of hope.

“The president’s wartime report card is right here, in Dand,” Vance said. “You’re looking at it.”

After the lecture, we flew in a Chinook helicopter back to the Canadian compound at Kandahar Airfield, a gigantic military base south of the city. Little had changed since my visit a year before, though the graffiti in the bathroom stalls had been updated with salacious remarks about Brigadier General Daniel Ménard’s indiscretions with a military clerk. Ménard had taken over from Vance as Canada’s top soldier in Afghanistan; when he was relieved of duty for his misconduct, Vance was asked to return and finish his tour.

Outside the compound’s walls, the base had changed dramatically. Barracks, mess halls, and sprawls of barbed wire had sprung up on what was once barren scrubland. US special forces, medevac teams, and intelligence units had poured into the base, and long rows of attack helicopters and fighter jets were parked on the tarmac, ready to support ISAF’s violent push westward into the districts near Kandahar City, across the dense terrain that brought the Soviets to grief three decades before.

The influx of American soldiers began in the summer of 2009, when improved conditions in Iraq allowed for the diversion of two brigades to southern Afghanistan. At that time, the Canadian forces were thinly stretched across Kandahar Province, trying to keep a lid on the insurgency through regular clearing operations — known among the soldiers as “mowing the lawn” — in what would otherwise be Taliban-held swaths of territory. With extra troops newly at his disposal, Vance had decided to concentrate on one small village close to Kandahar City. “We had to demonstrate counterinsurgency on an identifiable population,” he told me back at his headquarters.

Thus began the Deh-e Bagh Model Village project. The Canadians built a base in the area and started mentoring the Afghan National Police, funding small-scale development projects, and bolstering the pay and staff of the local government and bureaucracy. In April, they handed off these tasks to an American unit that remained under Vance’s command.

A year after the project began, security for foreign soldiers there, at least, was pretty good. Vance would regularly showcase the initiative for reporters by having them walk around without helmets and body armour. At a meeting with the officer staff at the district centre the day we visited, he expressed the hope that someday — perhaps in a year, perhaps two — Afghan security forces could take sole responsibility for the district. “Deh-e Bagh is just getting off the ground,” Vance said.

An energetic, wry Kingstonian from a military family (his father retired from the army as a lieutenant general), Vance took the war personally. After Ménard replaced him, he had returned to Canada and embarked on the speaking engagements for visiting policy institutes and military academies that post-tour commanding generals typically do. But he had also spoken at civil society groups and universities, in an effort to reach the general population. What he encountered disheartened him: not just opposition to the war, he said, but ignorance of its basic premises. “I’ve found that it’s hard to explain this to people.”
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2 comment(s)

AnonymousNovember 11, 2010 09:03 EST

Great, very good stuff Matt. Liked your piece,


Eric BNovember 26, 2010 18:49 EST

Great article. Great images too.

This reminds me of an article or book review I read several years ago about the results of a long-term study on the effects relief missions have on the surround evirons or a country at large. Overwhelmingly it found that infrastructures to support the relief mission developed quickly and often remained entrenched - to the detriment of the missions intent.

Obviously, throwing money at the problem is not the solution.

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