Bricks and mortars do battle in Kandahar

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Saturday, August 7, 2010

Kandahar is starting to feel a lot like Baghdad. Tall concrete blast walls, like those that surround the green zone, are seemingly everywhere. United States soldiers supervise checkpoints on all main roads leading into Kandahar. Residents are urged to apply for new identification cards that require them to have their retinas scanned and fingerprints recorded.

To counter the Taliban's influence in the city, US and NATO commanders are turning to population-control tactics employed in the Iraqi capital during the 2007 troop surge to separate warring Sunnis and Shiites. They are betting that such measures can help separate insurgents from the rest of the population, an essential first step in the US-led campaign to improve security in and around Afghanistan's second-largest city. Advertisement: Story continues below

''If you don't have control of the population, you can't secure the population,'' said Brigadier-General Frederick Hodges, director of operations for the NATO regional command in southern Afghanistan.

In Baghdad, checkpoints, ID cards and walled-off communities helped to reduce violence because there were two feuding factions, riven by sect. Carving the city into a collection of separate Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods allowed US forces to place themselves along the borders. Both sides tolerated the tactics to a degree because they came to believe US troops would protect them from their rivals.

The conflict in Kandahar is far murkier. There are no differences in religion or ethnicity. Nearly everyone is a Sunni Pashtun. There are divisions among tribes and clans but they are not a reliable indicator of support for the Taliban. And many residents regard US forces as the cause of the growing instability, rather than the solution to it.

Military officials hope the measures will make it more difficult for the Taliban to bring munitions into the city and to attack key government buildings. Biometric scans will allow soldiers at checkpoints to apprehend anyone whose fingerprints are in a database of suspected insurgents. ''Just because Afghanistan is different from Iraq, it doesn't mean you can't use techniques that worked well there,'' Hodges said.

Another tactic soon to be copied in Kandahar involves serious outlays from a discretionary fund that commanders can use to pay for quick-turnaround reconstruction projects. General David Petraeus, the former top commander in Iraq who recently took charge of the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan, called such money ''a weapon system''.

The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has authorised Petraeus to spend $US227 million ($248 million) from the fund - the largest single expenditure to date - to pay for new generators and millions of litres of diesel to bolster the electricity supply in Kandahar. Top military officers in Afghanistan support the costly effort because they think providing more power will lead residents to view their government more favourably, which is a key element of the counterinsurgency campaign.

But some US civilian officials in the country question whether more electricity, which will be directed to businesses, will win over residents. The officials maintain the US will have to keep shelling out millions of dollars a month for diesel or risk further wrath from Kandaharis because a hoped-for hydro-electric project intended to replace the generators will take years to complete.

Contractors working for the NATO regional command have installed 7000 concrete slabs - each 2.4 metres wide - around the governor's palace and the mayor's office, along main roads and in front of police stations. Demand for the walls is so high that several manufacturing sites have sprung up on the highway heading towards the airport.

Military officials say informal surveys of residents show significant support for walls and checkpoints, but local leaders are uneasy. Kandahar's Governor, Tooryalai Wesa, told Hodges that he does not want parts of the city to turn into another Baghdad green zone.

Municipal workers have registered about 20,000 residents in the biometric database and provided them with plastic ID cards. However, the President, Hamid Karzai, put the registration on hold last week because of concerns over privacy rights, military officials said.

Among other grievances, residents near checkpoints say electronic jamming equipment used by soldiers to combat remote-controlled bombs interferes with their mobile phones. Shopkeepers are losing business.

''Since they put the cement walls up, security is better, but nobody is coming to our shops,'' an elderly man named Rafiullah told Hodges as he visited his small stall next to a checkpoint on the western border.

Last month, three US soldiers and four Afghan interpreters were killed when two suicide bombers stormed a police headquarters building. It had not been fully encircled with concrete walls.

Hodges said the checkpoints had forced insurgents to find alternative routes into the city, either through the desert or on dirt paths, which limit what they can transport and how quickly they can move. ''Will we stop everyone? No,'' he said. ''But it is having an effect. The enemy is having to change their movements.''

The Taliban are also seeking to place new obstacles for US and Afghan forces. In the Arghandab district north of Kandahar, the insurgents have seeded pomegranate groves and vineyards with homemade anti-personnel mines; several soldiers have been maimed by them over the past two weeks.

Commanders are wrestling with the option of razing some fields to remove the bombs, which would eliminate many farmers' livelihoods, or assume more risk by leaving the crops untouched.

Population control worked to the extent it did in Baghdad because each side believed the other posed a threat and turned to the US for security. In many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the population has yet to seek protection.


Related issues: