KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Although it's just beginning, the U.S.-led effort to pacify the Taliban's spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan already appears to be faltering.
Key military operations have been delayed until the fall, efforts to improve local government are having little impact and a Taliban assassination campaign has brought a sense of dread to Kandahar's dusty streets.
NATO officials once spoke of demonstrating major progress by mid-August, but U.S. commanders now say the turning point may not be reached until November, and perhaps later.
At the urging of Afghan leaders, U.S. officials have stopped describing the plan as a military operation. Instead, they've dubbed it "Cooperation for Kandahar," a moniker meant to focus attention on efforts to build up local governance while reducing fears of street battles.
"We're not using the term 'operation' or 'major operations' because that often brings to mind in peoples' psyche the idea of a D-Day and an H-Hour and an attack," U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, said Thursday in Washington.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed him. "This is not Fallujah," Clinton told reporters, in a reference to the house-to-house fighting that drove Sunni Muslim insurgents from the Iraqi town of Fallujah. "Lessons have been learned since Iraq. A lot of lessons."
McChrystal emphasized winning over the local population.
"It's important that we engage the population so that we shape the leaders, the natural leaders, the elders, political and economic leaders so that their participation helps shape how we go forward," he said.
American and Afghan officials, however, so far have made little headway in building a foundation for a respected local government capable of winning the confidence of the nearly 1 million Afghans who live in and around Kandahar.
The largest impediment remains President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
A controversial kingpin and reputed drug smuggler who reportedly has been paid by the CIA, he wields virtually unchecked power over the region as the chairman of the provincial council as well as through local militias, security firms awarded lucrative contracts by the U.S.-led international force and an alliance with a small band of powerful tribal leaders.
Karzai denies any wrongdoing, and U.S. officials say they've been unable to uncover incriminating information on him.
Many U.S. defense officials and analysts are concerned that continuing to work with Ahmed Wali Karzai could jeopardize the public support that McChrystal concedes is vital to his plan's success.
Ahmed Wali Karzai "has had four or five years now to prove that he can be successful in restoring order and good governance in the south. But things have only gotten worse on his watch. He is not the man we ought to be working with," said Carl Forsberg of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
In a report released last month, Forsberg warned that Ahmed Wali Karzai's growing unpopularity risks boosting support for the Taliban and jeopardizing chances of convincing insurgents to switch sides, a key part of McChrystal's plan.
However, the Obama administration apparently has given up trying to convince President Karzai to replace his half-sibling.
Appearing with Clinton at the U.S. Institute for Peace, President Karzai said Thursday that he raised the question of his half-brother on Wednesday with President Barack Obama and "the issue is resolved as it now stands."
Ahmed Wali Karzai exuded confidence In a McClatchy interview and dismissed any suggestion that the evolving plans were faltering. Asked when he would be able to declare victory, he said the battle was already over.
"We already won," he said Monday. "We are picking up the pieces now."
Since President Karzai traveled to Kandahar six weeks ago for an acrimonious meeting with tribal leaders, however, brazen attacks on tribal elders and local government officials have paralyzed what local governance existed. High-profile community meetings meant to boost confidence in the local government and its U.S. patron have been put on hold.
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Ahmed Wali Karzai dismissed the significance of the Taliban assassination campaign.
"Bombs happen in London, bombs happen in the USA, bombs happen in Israel, bombs happen in Pakistan," he said. "Bombs happen in every country. This is something you cannot control. It's not only happening in Kandahar," he told McClatchy.
Despite Ahmed Wali Karzai's declaration of victory, U.S.-led military operations to drive the Taliban out of surrounding strongholds in advance of the main effort in the city are slowly expanding, and U.S. special forces teams are pursuing insurgent leaders inside Kandahar. U.S. military police are also beginning to partner with Afghan police, a process that's to grow significantly in coming months.
McChrystal has spoken about a "rising tide of security."
The tide appears to be rising slowly, though. According to an updated timeline seen by McClatchy, the U.S. troop buildup won't reach its peak until September, around the time that Afghanistan is to hold parliamentary elections and U.S. congressional election campaigns will be in full swing.
One major question is whether there will be enough forces for Kandahar, where McChrystal's plan calls for the deployment of 20,000 U.S. and Afghan troops.
U.S. defense officials and defense analysts said that McChrystal used 10,000 troops in Helmand to gain control of a rural river valley with about 50,000 residents. But in Kandahar, however, Afghanistan's second largest city, with an estimated population of 800,000, he's calling for just 20,000 troops.
"None of this makes any sense," said a U.S. defense official. "If it took you 10,000 (U.S. troops) to do Marjah, there aren't enough troops (for Kandahar)." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
American officials heading the government reform and civilian aid efforts in Kandahar declined to discuss the situation there.
Frank Ruggiero, the top State Department official in Kandahar, told Congress last week that the Taliban assassination campaign is threatening the tenuous efforts to create a respected local government.
American officials also describe Gov. Tooryalai Wesa, the U.S-educated Kandahar governor, as largely a "one-man show" who has yet to make significant strides in establishing his authority.
The challenges in Kandahar come amid a growing recognition in Kabul and Washington that efforts in neighboring Helmand province to install a new administration in the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah quickly have stumbled.
Marjah was meant to be the proving ground for McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy, which emphasizes building governments trusted by local populations over combat operations.
Military leaders now describe Helmand as a "tale of two districts," however. One is Nadi Ali, where British forces are reported to have had some success; the other is Marjah, where Afghan security forces and the nascent Afghan administration still need U.S. Marines to keep the Taliban at bay.
Marjah "is already coming unraveled," the U.S. defense official said. He noted that on the eve of the Marjah offensive in February, McChrystal described how he planned to bring in a "government in a box."
"But when they opened the box, there was nothing in it," the U.S. defense official continued.
McCrystal insisted Thursday that progress was being made in Marjah. But he also conceded that the locals "remain to be convinced" that they'll see an honest local administration.
(Landay reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kandahar contributed to this report.)