Kandahar: The Latest Casualty of an Invisible War

Not only is it unclear that the U.S. and
NATO are winning their war in Afghanistan, the lack of support for their
effort by the Afghanistan president himself has driven the American
commander to the brink of resignation. In response to complaints from
his constituents, Afghanistan's mercurial President Hamid Karzai called
Sunday for American troops to scale back their military operations.
The supposed ally of the U.S., who only last spring petulantly
threatened to join the Taliban, astonished Washington with this new
outburst, which prompted a warning from Gen. David Petraeus that the
president was making Petraeus' position "untenable," which some speculated might be a threat to resign.

During the past two months, the U.S.
military has fought a major campaign in the environs of the southern
Pashtun city of Kandahar, launching night raids and attempting to push
insurgents out of the orchards and farms to the east of the metropolis.
Many local farmers were displaced,
losing their crops in the midst of the violence, and forced to become
day laborers in the slums of Kandahar. Presumably these Pashtun clans
who found themselves in the crossfire between the Taliban and the U.S.
put pressure on Karzai to call a halt to the operation.

That there has been heavy fighting in
Afghanistan this fall would come as a surprise to most Americans, who
have seen little news on their televisions about the war. Various websites noted
that 10 NATO troops were killed this past Saturday and Sunday alone,
five of them in a single battle, but it was hardly front page news, and
got little or no television coverage.

The midterm campaign circus took the focus
off of foreign affairs in favor of witches in Newark and eyes of Newt in
Georgia. Distant Kandahar was reduced to an invisible battle in an
unseen war, largely unreported in America's mass media, as though it
were irrelevant to the big campaign issues-of deficits and spending, of
taxes and public welfare. Since it was President Obama's offensive,
Democrats could not run against it. Since it is billed as key to U.S.
security, Republicans were not interested in running against it.
Kandahar, city of pomegranates and car bombs, of poppies and government
cartels, lacked a partisan implication, and so no one spoke of it.

In fact, the war is costing on the order of $7 billion a month,
a sum that is still being borrowed and adding nearly $100 billion a
year to the already-burgeoning national debt. Yet in all the talk in all
the campaigns in the hustings about the dangers of the federal budget
deficit, hardly any candidates fingered the war as economically unsustainable.

The American public cannot have a debate on the war if it is not even
mentioned in public. The extreme invisibility of the Afghanistan war is
apparent from a Lexis Nexis search I did for "Kandahar" (again, the site
of a major military campaign) for the period from Oct. 15 to Nov. 15. I
got only a few dozen hits, from all American news sources (National
Public Radio was among the few media outlets that devoted substantial
airtime to the campaign).

The campaign in the outskirts of Kandahar had been modeled on last
winter's attack on the farming area of Marjah in Helmand Province.
Marjah was a demonstration project, intended to show that the U.S., NATO
and Afghanistan security forces could "take, clear, hold and build."
Petraeus' counterinsurgency doctrine depends on taking territory away
from the insurgents, clearing it of guerrillas, holding it for the
medium term to keep the Taliban from returning and to reassure local
leaders that they need not fear reprisals for "collaborating," and then
building up services and security for the long term to ensure that the
insurgents can never again return and dominate the area. But all these
months later, the insurgents still have not been cleared from Marjah, which is a site of frequent gun fights between over-stretched Marines and Taliban.

There is no early prospect of Afghan army
troops holding the area, or of building effective institutions in the
face of constant sniping and bombing. Marjah is only 18 square miles.
Afghanistan is more than 251,000 square miles. If Marjah is the model
for the campaign in the outskirts of Kandahar, then the latter will be a
long, hard slog. Kandahar is even more complicated, since the
labyrinthine alleyways of the city and its hundreds of thousands of
inhabitants offer insurgents new sorts of cover when they are displaced
there from the countryside.

Counterinsurgency requires an Afghan
partner, but all along the spectrum of Afghan institutions, the U.S. and
NATO are seeking in vain for the "government in a box" once promised by
Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The people in the key provinces of Helmand and
Kandahar are largely hostile to U.S. and NATO troops,
seeing them as disrespecting their traditions and as offering no
protection from violence. They see cooperating with the U.S. as
collaboration and want Mullah Omar of the Taliban to join the

Although the U.S. and NATO have spent $27 billion on training Afghan troops, only 12 percent of them can operate independently. Karzai and his circle are extremely corrupt, taking millions in cash payments from Iran and looting a major bank for unsecured loans,
allowing the purchase of opulent villas in fashionable Dubai. It is no
wonder that Petraeus is at the end of his rope. The only question is why
the Obama administration is not, and how long it will hold to the myth
of counterinsurgency.

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