A member of the Afghan National Police at a police station in Zohr Shah, north of Dand District
It’s true that counterinsurgency, or COIN
, as it is known, can be hard to explain. It’s as deceptively simple, and ineffably complex, as its guiding rubric of “hearts and minds” suggests. Most importantly, it means bringing physical security to civilians through military action, and separating them from insurgency. But then the population must be won over, and the conditions for responsive, transparent government put in place. As the US Army’s field manual Tactics in Counterinsurgency
involves all political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions that can be taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.” In Afghanistan, ISAF
and its civilian adjuncts have been called upon to heal social divisions, navigate tribal structures, remedy social and political injustices, fix sanitation and electricity systems, establish free markets, halt corruption, build schools, and so forth.
, in other words, is the military’s Theory of Everything. And with tens of thousands of additional American and Afghan soldiers in place, and billions of dollars coming in, it was now being applied to Kandahar City and its populated approaches. “We have enough force and civilian presence to do the village operation on a city scale,” Vance told me.
The plan being implemented was called Operation Hamkari (“co-operation” in Farsi). Vance showed me a diagram of the campaign, which featured a large outer circle, a bevy of arrows, and several boxes filled with acronyms, all representing the latest in counterinsurgency theory. ISAF
forces in Kandahar, including his brigade, would establish a ring of checkpoints surrounding the provincial capital, employing biometric scanners to measure and sort the population into civilians, government personnel, and suspected insurgents. They would mentor the government and partner with newly trained Afghan security forces. They would then place these groups between civilians and insurgents, effectively separating them. They would, in sum, renovate the whole of Kandahar, plugging in different components as needed.
“We pull the ANP
out and put ANCOP
in,” Vance said, referring to the Afghan National Police and a new, centrally trained asset, the Afghan National Civil Order Police. “We train the ANP
and then put them back in.” It was a vision of a complex but rational order, like Descartes’s physiology of the human body as a mechanical system of cause and effect. But could the theory hold up in reality?
amp Nathan Smith, which houses the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, or KPRT
, is a bit unusual for a military base. Named after a Canadian private killed there in a friendly fire incident in 2002, it occupies a compound in northeastern Kandahar City that was once a cannery for the region’s fruits and vegetables, then briefly became a prison during the Taliban regime. With its makeshift swimming pool, greenhouse, fountain, and occasional supply of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, it has been described, not unkindly, as a “one-star Mexican resort.” But like Kandahar Airfield, a forty-five-minute drive away, it’s rather cramped these days, thanks to the influx of American soldiers.
is also unusual for a military base in that its focus isn’t on an armed opponent. Instead, it seeks to fix Afghanistan’s corrupt and ineffective government. “We’ve gone from seeing it primarily as a security challenge to seeing it principally as a governance challenge,” said Ben Rowswell, until recently Canada’s civilian representative in Kandahar. “It has been the story of our evolution since I’ve been here.”
He added that after years of taking a top-down approach to nation building, the international community was now trying to improve governance from the bottom up. “One of the principal obstacles here is the relationship between the government and the people,” he said. “The challenge as we understand it is to strengthen that relationship.”
One approach to this task was advising the provincial government, in particular the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, and the mayor of the capital city, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, both favourites of the internationals. Another was building up the local civil administration. The international community was having trouble attracting candidates, though. As an internal ISAF
assessment of Kandahar City noted, “An ironic side-effect of the American civilian surge in Kandahar is that, because we have hired many of the best educated and motivated Afghans to support us, fewer talented Afghans are available to work for the Afghan government itself in Kandahar City.”
In fact, the government was so understaffed and dysfunctional that ISAF
had resorted to supporting Kandaharis directly, through something it called Civil-Military Co-operation. I went on several CIMIC
patrols, most of them “key-leader engagements” aimed at gathering “atmospherics.” In plain English, this meant buttonholing a local with a white beard and asking him questions about security and village needs. At best, these patrols had a whiff of the quixotic. At worst, they reminded me of “take me to your leader” scenes in sci-fi movies.
I joined Sergeant Eric Jenkinson, a member of the Canadian team, and First Lieutenant Wyatt Hughes, his American civil affairs counterpart, on a more intensive key-leader engagement mission in the village of Zohr Shah, which sits on the western edge of a sprawling suburban belt south of Kandahar City. Known as Mahal-e Nijat (“place of deliverance”) because of its years as a mujahedeen bolthole during the anti-Soviet jihad, the belt had in recent years become a major staging ground for Taliban attacks. It was almost devoid of government presence until the Americans constructed a base in Zohr Shah, just downhill from an ancient, abandoned mud fort they had dubbed Alexander’s Castle. (The name was a nod to Alexander the Great, who once passed through the region.)
Hughes and Jenkinson were both kind, affable men who genuinely wanted to help Afghanistan. The country’s poverty and devastation affected them deeply. Like most of the soldiers I talked to, however, they had little detailed knowledge about the people in the areas they were touring. On this trip, they were looking for a farmer and village elder named Gul Mohammed. When the Americans were building their base, they had crushed a pipe inside a culvert, cutting off irrigation to his fields. On a previous visit, Hughes and Jenkinson heard about this, and they promised Gul Mohammed they would come back and fix his culvert. The idea was to use the incident to connect the government to the people of Zohr Shah. Both proved elusive.
Hughes and Jenkinson didn’t have a phone number for Gul Mohammed, so they called the local police chief, who brought over somebody he said was the village elder, Hajji Moallem. “Who is Gul Mohammed?” Moallem asked us. He scratched his head for a minute. Then he said, “Oh, I think he is one of the guys renting the land,” and placed a call on his cellphone.
Much of the terrain around Kandahar City is owned by people who have moved or fled elsewhere. These absentee landlords, who lease out their properties to tenants with few rights or long-term connections to the land, plague key-leader engagement missions. While we waited for Gul Mohammed to show up, Hughes asked Moallem what his village needed from the government. “When you built the base here, you knocked down the power lines to the mosque,” Moallem responded. Hughes said he would pass along the information to the district manager, who would in turn pass it on to the mayor — again part of the strategy of connecting the government to its people. “The mayor has a very strong interest in what’s going on here,” Hughes said.
Moallem looked skeptical. “That will never work. The government won’t do anything. Let’s do it ourselves.” For the equivalent of about $600 (all figures US), he said, he could get the city engineers to come and reconnect the power. “We just have to pay them for their fuel, for their lunch.” In other words, bribe them to do their jobs.