A wave of insurgent attacks have hit Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in recent days as the country’s presidential elections draw near. The spectacular attacks may distract from a greater danger down south, according to a number of Afghanistan watchers, who warn of the possibility of a Taliban takeover of Kandahar city. The former Taliban stronghold has emerged as the key piece of terrain in the current phase of the Afghan war.
Occasional adviser to the U.S. command in Afghanistan, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, recently warned that the fall of Kandahar would not come in the Tet offensive version, that is, not with Taliban flying columns loaded in Toyota pickups. Instead, the fear is of a creeping takeover of the city by insurgents operating in the shadows, assassinating or intimidating the police, judges and local leaders. Counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen, speaking at USIP last week, said clandestine Taliban cells in Kandahar are waging a “silent war of terror.”
In a report issued last December, the Senlis Council, a Brussels based research organization, warned of an insurgent noose tightening around Kabul, and that there was a risk of the city being overrun by the Taliban. The report was largely dismissed as being a tad hyperbolic. The sizeable ISAF presence in Kabul would preclude any direct Taliban attack on the capital, although clearly suicide and car bombings and mortar and rocket attacks are a persistent threat.
Where the insurgent noose is really tightening is around Kandahar. Already there are well established Taliban enclaves in the Pashtun city. A number of the districts surrounding Kandahar are under serious stress. Kandahar holds important significance for the Taliban and if insurgents were to gain a foothold, even to the point where it became a debate as to who actually controlled the city, it would be a staggering defeat for the U.S. led coalition.
The Council on Foreign Relation’s Stephen Biddle, for one, believes the current disposition of U.S. forces should be changed. Troops currently operating in the northeast, in the mountainous areas along the order with Pakistan, should be shifted down south to the Kandahar area.
Some experts have hinted, without coming right out and saying so, that the ongoing offensive in Helmand has been a poor use of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade; that the Marines would have been more effectively employed in and around Kandahar. The Helmand offensive was planned in advance long before the new Afghan commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, took over. It will be interesting to see if there is a reallocation of forces in coming months.
Kandahar is now the priority for new Afghan Army units and resources, according to officials. The Army’s 5th Stryker brigade is also now operating in the area and should bolster security around the city.