It was a bright and beautiful September dawn. The promise of imminent action made it finer still, keying the senses until they thrilled at the web of rose light cast by the rising sun across the vines and marijuana fields of Zhari district. Catching the rotor tips of the circling Kiowa helicopters in autumnal glow, as the sun broke free from the horizon line, the colours changed again and the world was momentarily cloaked in gold. If only war were always this way.
Weary Afghan and American soldiers return from a patrol in Zhari
Through this luminous wonder trudged man's earthy agents: Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne, uniforms already sweat-stained, crotch-ripped and ragged, the dust puffing smoky wreaths around their boots as they marched to fight. US surge troops, part of the last packet of 15,000 sent to Afghanistan last summer, they had been sent to battle with inspiring words ringing in their ears.
"The Taliban command in Pakistan have said that if they lose Zhari they'll be forced out of Kandahar," their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Benchoff, had exhorted these men only the previous day. They were on the brink of their entry into Operation Dragon Strike, the year's climactic push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. "So goes Zhari," he added, citing an intercepted intelligence report from the Taliban, "so goes Kandahar city."
He was exaggerating a little, but his words still rang true. Among its many competitors, the district of Zhari is the one rightful heir to the over-used cliché "birthplace of the Taliban". Mullah Omar, Commander of the Faithful and the Taliban's absentee leader, moved to Zhari as a boy. His uncle, who had married his mother after the death of his father, became a local mullah there. Mullah Omar later preached from the mosque in the Zhari village of Sangesar, where in spring 1994 two mujahideen commanders, guilty of rape, were hanged from a tank barrel at his behest. The execution was the first public action of the Taliban, who later that year marched eastward down Highway 1 to seize Kandahar.
The struggle for the district is something of a microcosm for the surge. With an inhabited area little more than 30 kilometres wide and perhaps eight km deep, squeezed between the Arghandab River to the south and Highway 1 to the north, Zhari's position abutting this crucial communication route to Kandahar had given it disproportionate significance as a staging post for the Taliban.
By midsummer, supply trucks were getting shot up or bombed along the route several times a week. The insurgents might not have been at the gates of Kandahar but the urban population there knew that the Taliban's parallel system of rule, of courts, taxes and recruitment, existed just west of the city limits. Zhari's flat landscape is a labyrinth of ditches, orchards, mud walls, tree and narrow horizons which troops likened to the infamous Norman bocage of the Second World War.
Four donkeys marched alongside Dog Company. Purchased from a local trader at the rip-off rate of $500 a beast, the animals were laden with sappers' equipment, munitions and explosives. Their soldier handlers boasted that they had been instructed to shoot the beasts if they bolted under fire. Instead, one by one the beasts began to lag. Soon, despite a rain of kicks and curses, they refused to move at all.
Then gunfire rattled alongside the lead platoon's flanks as insurgents opened up from among the vines. It was a little after 8am. Within half an hour, a popular platoon commander had been wounded by an IED. By 9.30, every one of the company's units was in contact with the enemy. Dog Company were barely 600 metres south of their start point and still some way from reaching another of their battalion's companies, dropped further south by helicopter during the night. As the soldiers returned fire, the Kiowas swooped in impossibly low, strafing the Taliban with rockets and machine-guns to a ground chorus of exultant yells.
"Light 'em up!"
By this time, the donkeys had been abandoned and, free of their loads, wandered unconcernedly through the vines as gunfire rattled about them. Some of the accompanying Afghan troops joined them in the foliage, nodding off in hash-induced trances beneath the bullwhip crack of bullets. Relatively newly-recruited troops, the Afghan National Army here looked miserably inept beside their US allies, and were a far cry from some of the pugnacious Afghan units I had encountered in Helmand a year earlier. Natural killers, some of those fighters had habitually placed the mutilated bodies of dead Taliban beside their nocturnal checkpoints as a message to the local populace. By contrast, these charsullahs (potheads) seemed overwhelmed by it all.
Forever ingrained into my brain was the image of a US soldier fighting in the flat light of late morning, his combat trousers ripped open through wear along the seams of his crotch from knee to knee, his penis out and flapping ridiculously, firing up the vineyards with his M4 carbine while beside him lolled an ANA trooper so stoned he struggled to keep his eyes open, his helmet strap hooked under his nose, weapon cradled uselessly in his arms, an utterly moronic figure: not quite the official pin-up boys of the surge, but certainly memorable.
The Taliban put up a doughty resistance. There were little more than perhaps ten insurgents — two or three machine-gun teams — slowing down Dog Company with harassing fire. Arrayed against them were drones, jets, A-10s, Apache helicopters, Kiowas, Stryker tanks and 155mm artillery. There was not much let-up at night either, when the Spooky gunships dealt out death from above, or the new Himar rockets — a type of mini-cruise missile — wiped out the Taliban bomb factories and command-and-control nodes in the rear areas.
Yet time and time again, the Taliban, huddled in their tight little earth-walled "murder hole" bunkers among the vines, appeared to absorb the most frightful punishment from the vengeful, roiling skies, only to emerge once again with the distinctive clacking of their Kalashnikovs and PKM machine-guns. But as time went by and the Kiowa gun runs mounted, the space between these insolent retorts lengthened. Eventually, by the third day, there was no sound from the insurgents at all.
Was this the beginning of the war's end?
Some 12,000 US and Nato troops alongside 7,000 Afghan soldiers are involved in the surge in Kandahar province. Here the ongoing operation, fought in outlying districts such as Zhari, Panjwayi and Arghandab, is attempting to smash the critical structure of the insurgency to such an extent as to provide "irreversible momentum" to the counter-insurgency. Hopefully, the Taliban will then be herded to eventual negotiations having been tenderised, even pulped.
In Zhari, rather than sweep through and withdraw, the traditional tactic of the various forces who have fought through the district's vineyards for 31 years, the surge troops intend to stay and build. The 101st Airborne Division had committed a brigade to the operations west of Kandahar, backed by a Canadian battle group. Two ANA brigades had been deployed to the fight alongside them. Another ANA brigade was inbound. These are huge numerical assets, which for the first time allow the coalition truly to fight an insurgency while simultaneously developing civil infrastructure around Kandahar.
Units are establishing a series of strongpoints across the territory as they clear it, then changing focus in accordance with the principles of counter-insurgency warfare. In Zhari's case this means quitting killing and blowing things up and instead creating jobs and good governance; upgrading irrigation systems; building roads, a farmer's market and trade school. This is a familiar mantra by which commanders hopes to alter local affiliations and secure support for the government.
Ignore all the niceties though, the promises of roads, water and civil amenities, and there is no mistaking some of the sentiments behind the surge strategy. "Even should the Taliban suddenly make loud noises like ‘We've had enough'," one senior Western diplomat in Afghanistan told me, "the US would say: ‘We haven't given you enough yet.' They're getting hit by technology they've never seen before, not in 30 years. They're on their heels and we're going to kick their arse."
Britain's role in "kicking arse" in the south was a major one. The Headquarters 6 (UK) Division, headed by Major General Nick Carter, had more than 35,000 Nato troops under command in southern Afghanistan and presided over much of the autumn surge in the Taliban heartland. Indeed, the recent handover of command to the US 10th Mountain Division at the start of November marked the end of top-level UK military influence in southern Afghanistan. Yet despite British command involvement in the Kandahar surge and the gravity of the operation there you may seldom have heard of Zhari, of Operation Dragon Strike or its parent operation, Ham Kari.
This is partly intentional. The era when Nato boasted of its Afghan offensives, when commanders used phrases like "tipping-point" and "turning tide" to describe their efforts against the Taliban, ended last summer at the behest of General David Petraeus, the commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan (ISAF), who have been burned too many times before by a reversal of their fortunes. The failure of the information campaign around last February's Marjah operation lay at the heart of Petraeus's decision to mask the progress of subsequent operations, at least until a time of his choosing.
Marjah, a large area of dispersed rural communities that had become a staging-post for the Taliban in Helmand, was the subject of daily press releases by Nato and intense media scrutiny as the insurgents were cleared by US marines, the first troops of Obama's two-phase "surge" package of 30,000 reinforcements. Marjah was a resounding tactical success and achieved what it was intended to do, clearing a major Taliban concentration from Helmand and critically weakening its power base there.
But the US Marine Corps overextended its information campaign, promising quick and effective governance on the back of clearing the Taliban. The subsequent re-infiltration by its cells as well as paralysis among local authorities allowed the operation to be drubbed by critics, denying these first surge units their fruits of victory.
With his coming testimony before the US Senate in mind, November's Nato conference in Lisbon and Obama's strategic review of the surge in December, Petraeus probably had deeper campaign objectives too. "ISAF headquarters have made it clear that we shouldn't get ahead of the success curve with the media," said a leading US figure in southern Afghanistan.
So the focal point of the autumn surge in Kandahar province, though incorporating double the number of Afghan security forces used in Marjah and only slightly fewer coalition forces — nearly 20,000 soldiers — was conducted with little fanfare. In turn, Petraeus's reticence concealed a greater truth that has only recently begun to emerge. Behind the contrived silence of Nato commanders, and unnoticed by a British public who are at best baffled by the Afghan war, at worst appalled by it, the surge is opening up the campaign and killing Taliban. So far as it can, the surge is working.
The metrics in measuring success in any counter-insurgency are murky and imprecise. Given the seasonal variations in Afghanistan's war, whereby winter and poppy harvest are traditional low points in enemy activity, short-term interpretation becomes even less reliable. Days short of leaving Afghanistan, General Carter, the architect of so much of the surge operation in the south, spoke only of "encouraging signs" rather than "winning", and warned against judging the effect of the surge until next summer when the new fighting season arrives. "They are by no means huge measures of success," he cautioned at the end of October, describing an increase of local intelligence given to Nato by Afghans and an improvement in the security along Highway 1 and other roads, where Taliban attacks decreased by up to 80 percent as the surge intensified. "But you can see the general direction of travel."
Yet other leading figures involved with the war in the south — less beholden to the directives of higher command — spoke privately, in detail and with confidence of the Taliban being "routed".
"The Taliban are getting an absolute arse-kicking," said one top-level Westerner deeply involved with operations in Kandahar. "We're taking them off the battlefield in industrial numbers. We're convinced that the initiative has really shifted."
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president, the most powerful Afghan in the south and probably the best informed, went further still. "The Taliban are broken and defeated here," he told me in October, a few months after Petraeus, among others, decided that it was better to preserve him as an ally rather than attempt to sideline or undermine him. Once the subject of a barrage of allegations, Ahmed Wali Karzai has a new image typical of others among the war's changes. Nato has stopped chastising local villains. Now it is embracing them as part of the solution, citing "gangs and counter-gangs" as the way ahead, believing it can change bad actors into good as a way of combating the Taliban and stabilising the country, a policy shift that is long overdue.
"They are in a miserable state," Karzai added. "Their best commanders are all dead and their fighters run here and there. Their casualties are high and they can barely fight."
These were not isolated voices. Witnesses at a key meeting held in Kandahar city in early October between Nato commanders and their Afghan security counterparts described every officer present as agreeing that in southern Afghanistan "the Taliban are a spent force". The meeting included the Afghan 205 Corps commander, two Afghan brigadiers, the regional police and intelligence commanders, and British and American officers. "Without any exceptions during the tour-de-table, every one of them said that the Taliban have had it," said a witness. "The governor said: ‘The insurgents have lost any sense of morale and hope...and have lost the battle in Kandahar province.' The NDS (Afghan intelligence) commander said: ‘The insurgency is in its last stages.' ISAF may be a little quieter about it as we've got the ‘too good to be true' syndrome or else are afraid to be taken for fools. But the evidence of what is going on here is piling up."
In Zhari itself, Haji Rahmatullah Khan, agreed. "The Taliban are weak now," the 55-year-old village elder told me. "What can they do? A few IEDS. Some mines. It's not the same fight as the past. They have little power of their own left." Three times wounded fighting the Soviet forces among the same vineyards while a mujahideen commander, Haji Rahmatullah knew the Taliban intimately. Mullah Obaidullah, the Taliban's imprisoned defence minister, is his nephew. As a mujahid, he had fought alongside Mullah Omar on numerous occasions. Indeed, he claimed to have been involved in the action the day Mullah Omar lost an eye ("close to green in colour").
While insisting that most of the Taliban in Zhari were locals, he also suggested that few had ideological conviction beyond a desire to fight foreign troops, a paradigm threatening the surge's logic. But unlike during the jihad against the Russians when locals were united behind the resistance, he added today Zhari's population was split over the legitimacy of the insurgents' struggle. "It's not seen as such a good fight," Haji Rahmatulah continued. "But at the end it isn't down to Mullah Omar. It's down to Pakistan, America and Britain. If the right pressure is put on Pakistan, the Taliban would accept just three ministries, and the constitution, to end all of this. Without that pressure you can build 100 roads in Zhari and fight for a thousand years and you will still have Taliban in the orchards."
For their part, dismissing the claims against them, Taliban spokesmen have talked of their fighters conducting "tactical withdrawals" in the south — or else pointed to Taliban gains in the north of the country — but have chosen not to mention that these include withdrawals from areas such as Zhari and Panjwayi that have been its totemic preserves. "The enemy has not gained any ground of much significance," said Mullah Muhammad Isa Akhond, the Taliban's senior military commander in Kandahar, interviewed by Alemarah, the Taliban's website. "Mujahideen have tactically retreated from the areas which they (Nato) have entered but are causing the enemy great suffering and losses in well-planned IED attacks and ambushes."
Nor have the Taliban made any mention of the fearful attrition of their mid-level commanders over late summer, a toll that has included 339 "jackpot" commanders killed or captured by special forces between August and October, along with 949 other fighters, in targeted raids that have increased more than threefold with the surge. US pilots have multiplied their strikes on the Taliban by 50 per cent over the same period compared to 2009.
Human intelligence has led to some of these hits, but a lot more of it has come from intelligence assets provided by units such as the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade based in Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani border, who have penetrated Taliban communications to an unprecedented level. "We see an organisation [the Taliban] that looks like any other army in reverse," said an official privy to intercepts. "They say that their higher headquarters don't get it, that they haven't got the people, they haven't got the equipment. No ammunition. No detonators. Suicide bombers failing to show up. Locals no longer agreeing to bury their dead or help the wounded to aid stations. Their leadership and logistical train has broken apart. The organisation is so chopped that we're seeing mailroom guys trying to run the corporation."
Public statistics similarly suggest a significant erosion of the Taliban's capabilities in the south. In August 2009, for example, there were 246 violent incidents in Kandahar on presidential election day. But last September, parliamentary elections were held in the province with just 64 attacks. The only two deaths there that day were of insurgents, blown up by their own devices.
These figures have become the subject of hot debate among the US Defence Department, the White House, the State Department and intelligence agencies as the days count down to Obama's strategic review. By any measure, they suggest that the surge's "kick their arse" strategy is militarily effective. But how effective, to what end and for how long? The Taliban have proved themselves the masters of metastasis many times in the past. The insurgents' true benchmark of public support in the Pashtun south remains unfathomed, though it is important to note that even after so long the Taliban are running an insurgency, not a popular insurrection. But "kicking arse" and culling seldom work alone to end insurgencies, and in Afghanistan could actually undermine the longer-term aim of driving the insurgents to the negotiation table.
"Any dead commander is replaced by a man with stronger zeal than the previous one," explained Abdul Haqim Mujahed, formerly the Taliban's representative to the UN, now a member of the High Peace Council tasked by Karzai with finding a negotiated settlement to the war. "It's one of the main obstacles to the peace process. The younger commanders are more radical."
Were his words the judicious view of an experienced realist, or of a Taliban apologist keen to blunt the pounding his former allies were taking? As General Carter warned, few answers will be forthcoming before the return of next year's fighting season. Even US commanders, who are by and large confident about the surge, know that fighting alone will not win the war.
"Frederick the Great would kill a whole lot of soldiers, beat the Austrian army and the country would defer to him," noted Lt-Col Benchoff, who by the time his surge battalion pushed into Zhari was entering his 45th month of soldiering in Afghanistan. "But it isn't like that any more. The days of Frederick the Great are over. The military these days will never be decisive alone. They can only ever buy time for an economic and political solution. It's long-term, persistent benefit that changes affiliations here. How long that takes I don't know. But I hope it's soon. I'm sick of coming here."
Meanwhile, in Kandahar, the efforts for an economic and political solution, the key areas of the south's counter-insurgency campaign to which Benchoff referred, are stuttering.
Ghulam Haider Hamidi has one of the most unenviable jobs in the city: he's the mayor. People are always trying to kill him. Last year, he survived a bomb attack on his vehicle that killed two others and wounded six. We met one night in October on the lawn of the governor's office, an alternative to his own premises which Hamidi had been encouraged to avoid by Afghan intelligence agents, who had warned that a suicide bomber was waiting for him. Only two days earlier, his deputy, Noor Ahmad Nazari, had been murdered by a gunman as he walked home from work, ten minutes after finishing his shift. He was the second of Hamidi's deputies assassinated this year.
Popular wisdom has it that the Taliban, pushed out of their district heartlands by the surge, have moved into the sprawling city, disappearing among its million-strong populace, emerging fleetingly to kill government officials and supporters. The strategy allows them to hide but preserves their operational profile, paralysing local governance. It seems to work. Effective government institutions, the crucial foundations in the potential defeat of the insurgency, are being crippled by a shortage of employees. Fewer than 40 of the 119 jobs budgeted for government officials have been filled in Kandahar, partly because of the impact of the assassination campaign.
"I've got 800,000 citizens here made hostage by thieves and killers," said Hamidi, a fire-breathing former accountant who worked in Virginia for 20 years before returning home. "These killers don't want peace or stability. They can't even read or write, so how could peace ever feed them?" The situation outside the city is as bad. Among the important districts surrounding Kandahar, including Zhari, only 12 of the 44 staff employed in key posts have turned up to work.
Yet under closer scrutiny, both the Taliban's role in the killing and the intensity of the assassination campaign seem questionable. In the first ten months of 2010, of the 81 killings recorded by authorities inside Kandahar city just 59 were assessed to be the result of "assassination" as opposed to "murder", the difference in definition drawn according to whether the victim was in a position of authority or not. Even the overall body count only produced a murder ratio of 10.1 per 100,000 of population, a fraction of the murder ratio in US cities such as Chicago or Detroit. Hamidi freely admitted that his would-be killers could as easily be any warlord, mafia family member or criminal angry at his efforts to clean up the illegal use or appropriation of property. "I'm still not sure who killed my deputies," he said. "I've got many enemies in this city — warlords, thieves among the police. Far worse than the Taliban are those who claim to be my friends but come to me with snakes in their sleeves. They are more dangerous than any in Afghanistan."
But it is not solely the killings that threaten the development of governance in the south. Kabul's centralised, monolithic style of government has also stunted Kandahar's growth, potentially bestowing the insurgency with enough of an emergency oxygen supply to outlive the surge. The US and its allies have struggled hard to build a grassroots governance structure in the districts around Kandahar parallel to the military operation. The idea is to develop district administrations with access to village shurahs (meetings) through which to hoover up grievances. This structure has in turn been screwed together with Kandahar's provincial authorities appointed by Kabul so as to create an interface through which to identify and remedy the day-to-day problems affecting the rural population as quickly and effectively as possible, thereby blunting the edge of the insurgency.
But Kabul's input to the scheme has been weak, ensuring that the Americans have ended up governing as well as bankrolling Kandahar, a strategy that is clearly unsustainable for anything but the shortest period. Some provincial employees may have dodged work through fear of assassination, but many Kandahar posts were simply left vacant. Some saw the wages as too low and the risks too high. But in many instances the Kabul government simply failed to nominate appointments.
"Where is the (Kabul) remedy package?" queried a foreign diplomat in Kandahar. "We've become the secretariat for the governor and the mayor here, picking up trash, providing clean water, buying in electricity. We won't fail militarily here, nor in our foreign policy. The single point of potential failure is if the government in Kabul stunts governance at the periphery. Kabul is still stuck in a late Ottoman empire shemozzle of corruption and incompetence. People still want to take a chance in their government, but that government is potentially the sticking point that could reverse this."
Nevertheless, there is no doubting the overall sense of transformation in Afghanistan. A year ago palpable depression gripped Nato forces. The sense of "losing the war", stated or not, hung like a cloud over southern Afghanistan. That is no longer the case. The mission feels tight and focused again. "Winning" is still ill-defined but "losing" seems inconceivable. Top-level officials at the centre of the campaign in Afghanistan say that the report going to Obama for his December assessment will offer him the advice that the surge is achieving "not victory, but irreversible momentum; not rule of law, but law and order; not governance, but government services".
Moreover, the one Maginot Line-sized flaw in the surge strategy which would have ensured victory for the Taliban's patience — Obama's stated intention to start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 — appears to be fading. The picture has changed. Obama's timetables are under question and the 2011 withdrawal is in doubt. A limited scaling back of some US support troops next summer seems inevitable. But the combat forces set to replace this year's surge troops in Kandahar are already in training in America and due to come to Afghanistan next summer, transforming the supposed US withdrawal into something of a wooden horse that may instead haunt the Taliban. The insurgents have invested so much hope in the panacea of "2011" that as 2014 emerges as a more realistic date for significant US scaledown, it may be the Taliban, not the Americans, who become exhausted and find themselves battered to the negotiating table.
The surge has broken bets. The surge is buying itself time. And the surge seems set to last.
"The original Taliban thought they would come back to govern," concluded a Petraeus team member as the autumn closed in on Kandahar and snow choked the mountain passes along the border with Pakistan. "But now they realise that they never will. By next spring they'll have to figure out, ‘Do we want to come back to this? Or has our high-water mark passed and should we negotiate while we still can?'"