Last Stand in Kandahar

Can the military’s massive counterinsurgency gamble salvage the Afghan war?

Last Stand in Kandahar
A Canadian soldier on guard duty at Camp Nathan Smith looks out over Kandahar City.

It was the Fourth of July, and it was forty-five degrees outside. Under the blazing noonday sun, a few dozen soldiers stood around on bare gravel. They were mostly Americans from the 10th Mountain Division, in their distinctive black cavalry hats, mixed with a handful of Canadian soldiers and a few bearded civilians in jeans. Facing their semicircle was the short, stocky figure of Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar.

We were at the Dand District Centre, a small compound in the heart of Deh-e Bagh, a village about five kilometres southwest of Kandahar City. Next to us stood the district police station and the headquarters of 1-71 Cavalry Squadron, an American armoured unit; behind us was the squat bulk of the district governor’s office. Dand District was one of the last areas in the southern province of Kandahar where Taliban insurgency—which a 2009 American intelligence report estimated to have grown fourfold in Afghanistan over the previous four years—had yet to take root. In Vance’s opinion, this success resulted from the military’s focused application of counterinsurgency principles: bringing security to the people, separating them from the insurgency, and building up their government by supporting development.

Vance wished the assembled soldiers a happy Fourth of July, then took them through the story of how they had come to be standing there sweltering in the highlands of South Asia. As he saw it, the war could be understood in three phases: The first, he explained, began with the aftermath of September 11, when the US and its allies toppled the Taliban government and established a minimal troop presence in the country, then, in the face of a growing insurgency, stuck to its development and counterterrorism missions.

The second phase, he said, started in late 2005 with the expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) around the country. This phase was marked by the growing recognition that the conflict was a hot war against a resurgent guerrilla opponent. It featured pitched battles with Taliban fighters in the south, and then, after the Taliban scattered, a drawn-out struggle against a campaign of bombings, ambushes, and assassinations. The Canadian contingent of 2,500 soldiers had barely hung on in Kandahar. “We didn’t lose, but we didn’t win either,” Vance lectured.

Then, with an influx of 30,000 American soldiers since late 2009, the war had escalated to its third phase. By summer’s end, all the “surge” strategy elements would be in place in the south, swelling foreign troop strength in Kandahar sixfold, to about 15,000. Battalions would be in place where once there had been only companies, or no military presence at all. The resources to carry out a proper, manpower-intensive counterinsurgency campaign were at hand. But this was just the beginning, Vance said.

“How long does it take to end an insurgency? Anyone care to guess? ” he asked the soldiers. He turned to an American captain. Five years, the officer replied.

“Five years? Fifteen years. That’s how long it takes on average.” Vance paused to let that sink in. “We don’t have fifteen years. We’re in hurry-up mode.”

The public in the West, tired of a war that had dragged into its ninth year, was growing increasingly skeptical and clamouring for results. Nearly 2,000 Dutch personnel stationed in neighbouring Urozgan Province were leaving that summer, and the Canadians would follow in a year. President Obama was facing elections in November 2012, and the war would surely be a key campaign issue. Here in this district, where the situation had stabilized, was a glimmer of hope.

“The president’s wartime report card is right here, in Dand,” Vance said. “You’re looking at it.”

After the lecture, we flew in a Chinook helicopter back to the Canadian compound at Kandahar Airfield, a gigantic military base south of the city. Little had changed since my visit a year before, though the graffiti in the bathroom stalls had been updated with salacious remarks about Brigadier General Daniel Ménard’s indiscretions with a military clerk. Ménard had taken over from Vance as Canada’s top soldier in Afghanistan; when he was relieved of duty for his misconduct, Vance was asked to return and finish his tour.

Outside the compound’s walls, the base had changed dramatically. Barracks, mess halls, and sprawls of barbed wire had sprung up on what was once barren scrubland. US special forces, medevac teams, and intelligence units had poured into the base, and long rows of attack helicopters and fighter jets were parked on the tarmac, ready to support ISAF’s violent push westward into the districts near Kandahar City, across the dense terrain that brought the Soviets to grief three decades before.

The influx of American soldiers began in the summer of 2009, when improved conditions in Iraq allowed for the diversion of two brigades to southern Afghanistan. At that time, the Canadian forces were thinly stretched across Kandahar Province, trying to keep a lid on the insurgency through regular clearing operations—known among the soldiers as “mowing the lawn”—in what would otherwise be Taliban-held swaths of territory. With extra troops newly at his disposal, Vance had decided to concentrate on one small village close to Kandahar City. “We had to demonstrate counterinsurgency on an identifiable population,” he told me back at his headquarters.

Thus began the Deh-e Bagh Model Village project. The Canadians built a base in the area and started mentoring the Afghan National Police, funding small-scale development projects, and bolstering the pay and staff of the local government and bureaucracy. In April, they handed off these tasks to an American unit that remained under Vance’s command.

A year after the project began, security for foreign soldiers there, at least, was pretty good. Vance would regularly showcase the initiative for reporters by having them walk around without helmets and body armour. At a meeting with the officer staff at the district centre the day we visited, he expressed the hope that someday—perhaps in a year, perhaps two—Afghan security forces could take sole responsibility for the district. “Deh-e Bagh is just getting off the ground,” Vance said.

An energetic, wry Kingstonian from a military family (his father retired from the army as a lieutenant general), Vance took the war personally. After Ménard replaced him, he had returned to Canada and embarked on the speaking engagements for visiting policy institutes and military academies that post-tour commanding generals typically do. But he had also spoken at civil society groups and universities, in an effort to reach the general population. What he encountered disheartened him: not just opposition to the war, he said, but ignorance of its basic premises. “I’ve found that it’s hard to explain this to people.”

It’s true that counterinsurgency, or COIN, as it is known, can be hard to explain. It’s as deceptively simple, and ineffably complex, as its guiding rubric of “hearts and minds” suggests. Most importantly, it means bringing physical security to civilians through military action, and separating them from insurgency. But then the population must be won over, and the conditions for responsive, transparent government put in place. As the US Army’s field manual Tactics in Counterinsurgency explains, “COIN involves all political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological, and civic actions that can be taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.” In Afghanistan, ISAF and its civilian adjuncts have been called upon to heal social divisions, navigate tribal structures, remedy social and political injustices, fix sanitation and electricity systems, establish free markets, halt corruption, build schools, and so forth.

COIN, in other words, is the military’s Theory of Everything. And with tens of thousands of additional American and Afghan soldiers in place, and billions of dollars coming in, it was now being applied to Kandahar City and its populated approaches. “We have enough force and civilian presence to do the village operation on a city scale,” Vance told me.

The plan being implemented was called Operation Hamkari (“co-operation” in Farsi). Vance showed me a diagram of the campaign, which featured a large outer circle, a bevy of arrows, and several boxes filled with acronyms, all representing the latest in counterinsurgency theory. ISAF forces in Kandahar, including his brigade, would establish a ring of checkpoints surrounding the provincial capital, employing biometric scanners to measure and sort the population into civilians, government personnel, and suspected insurgents. They would mentor the government and partner with newly trained Afghan security forces. They would then place these groups between civilians and insurgents, effectively separating them. They would, in sum, renovate the whole of Kandahar, plugging in different components as needed.

“We pull the ANP out and put ANCOP in,” Vance said, referring to the Afghan National Police and a new, centrally trained asset, the Afghan National Civil Order Police. “We train the ANP and then put them back in.” It was a vision of a complex but rational order, like Descartes’s physiology of the human body as a mechanical system of cause and effect. But could the theory hold up in reality?

Camp nathan smith, which houses the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, or KPRT, is a bit unusual for a military base. Named after a Canadian private killed there in a friendly fire incident in 2002, it occupies a compound in northeastern Kandahar City that was once a cannery for the region’s fruits and vegetables, then briefly became a prison during the Taliban regime. With its makeshift swimming pool, greenhouse, fountain, and occasional supply of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, it has been described, not unkindly, as a “one-star Mexican resort.” But like Kandahar Airfield, a forty-five-minute drive away, it’s rather cramped these days, thanks to the influx of American soldiers.

The KPRT is also unusual for a military base in that its focus isn’t on an armed opponent. Instead, it seeks to fix Afghanistan’s corrupt and ineffective government. “We’ve gone from seeing it primarily as a security challenge to seeing it principally as a governance challenge,” said Ben Rowswell, until recently Canada’s civilian representative in Kandahar. “It has been the story of our evolution since I’ve been here.”

He added that after years of taking a top-down approach to nation building, the international community was now trying to improve governance from the bottom up. “One of the principal obstacles here is the relationship between the government and the people,” he said. “The challenge as we understand it is to strengthen that relationship.”

One approach to this task was advising the provincial government, in particular the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, and the mayor of the capital city, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, both favourites of the internationals. Another was building up the local civil administration. The international community was having trouble attracting candidates, though. As an internal ISAF assessment of Kandahar City noted, “An ironic side-effect of the American civilian surge in Kandahar is that, because we have hired many of the best educated and motivated Afghans to support us, fewer talented Afghans are available to work for the Afghan government itself in Kandahar City.”

In fact, the government was so understaffed and dysfunctional that ISAF had resorted to supporting Kandaharis directly, through something it called Civil-Military Co-operation. I went on several CIMIC patrols, most of them “key-leader engagements” aimed at gathering “atmospherics.” In plain English, this meant buttonholing a local with a white beard and asking him questions about security and village needs. At best, these patrols had a whiff of the quixotic. At worst, they reminded me of “take me to your leader” scenes in sci-fi movies.

I joined Sergeant Eric Jenkinson, a member of the Canadian team, and First Lieutenant Wyatt Hughes, his American civil affairs counterpart, on a more intensive key-leader engagement mission in the village of Zohr Shah, which sits on the western edge of a sprawling suburban belt south of Kandahar City. Known as Mahal-e Nijat (“place of deliverance”) because of its years as a mujahedeen bolthole during the anti-Soviet jihad, the belt had in recent years become a major staging ground for Taliban attacks. It was almost devoid of government presence until the Americans constructed a base in Zohr Shah, just downhill from an ancient, abandoned mud fort they had dubbed Alexander’s Castle. (The name was a nod to Alexander the Great, who once passed through the region.)

Hughes and Jenkinson were both kind, affable men who genuinely wanted to help Afghanistan. The country’s poverty and devastation affected them deeply. Like most of the soldiers I talked to, however, they had little detailed knowledge about the people in the areas they were touring. On this trip, they were looking for a farmer and village elder named Gul Mohammed. When the Americans were building their base, they had crushed a pipe inside a culvert, cutting off irrigation to his fields. On a previous visit, Hughes and Jenkinson heard about this, and they promised Gul Mohammed they would come back and fix his culvert. The idea was to use the incident to connect the government to the people of Zohr Shah. Both proved elusive.

Hughes and Jenkinson didn’t have a phone number for Gul Mohammed, so they called the local police chief, who brought over somebody he said was the village elder, Hajji Moallem. “Who is Gul Mohammed? ” Moallem asked us. He scratched his head for a minute. Then he said, “Oh, I think he is one of the guys renting the land,” and placed a call on his cellphone.

Much of the terrain around Kandahar City is owned by people who have moved or fled elsewhere. These absentee landlords, who lease out their properties to tenants with few rights or long-term connections to the land, plague key-leader engagement missions. While we waited for Gul Mohammed to show up, Hughes asked Moallem what his village needed from the government. “When you built the base here, you knocked down the power lines to the mosque,” Moallem responded. Hughes said he would pass along the information to the district manager, who would in turn pass it on to the mayor—again part of the strategy of connecting the government to its people. “The mayor has a very strong interest in what’s going on here,” Hughes said.

Moallem looked skeptical. “That will never work. The government won’t do anything. Let’s do it ourselves.” For the equivalent of about $600 (all figures US), he said, he could get the city engineers to come and reconnect the power. “We just have to pay them for their fuel, for their lunch.” In other words, bribe them to do their jobs.

I asked Moallem if he knew who the district manager was. He stared blankly, then said he had never heard of such a person. (I later learned that the manager had been fired a week earlier for stealing public funds.) If the people of Zohr Shah needed something desperately enough, Moallem said, they joined the long line of petitioners outside the governor’s office. Otherwise, they made do for themselves, or on occasion the foreigners came along to do it for them.

Finally, Gul Mohammed showed up. He turned out to be a gaunt, mud-spattered tenant farmer who had a few plots of onions near the base. We strapped on our helmets and body armour and walked outside the base together. The culvert was literally a stone’s throw outside the gate.

Hughes and Jenkinson’s plan was to pay six labourers $6 per day and one supervisor $10 per day for two days of labour—sort of a make-work program. But Gul Mohammed said he didn’t need that many people, and that Hughes and Jenkinson should just give him the money and let him take care of it. Hughes responded that they wanted to help provide employment in the village. Finally, they reached an agreement, and Gul Mohammed found two other men and a young boy to help.

The men took turns hacking a single shovel into the ground as several onlookers from the village watched. Eventually, Hughes, Jenkinson, and I went for lunch. When we came back a few hours later, the Afghans were standing in the shade, their shovel abandoned. They hadn’t made much progress, but we soon saw why: Gul Mohammed had come up with a better solution. Another local man drove over in a front loader that had been filling HESCO security barriers in front of the base. He tore out the pipe with the loader’s claw, bending it in half as it came out of the ground. It appeared to have been perfectly good, just a little clogged with mud at each end. “Well, we couldn’t have known whether it was crushed until we dug it up,” Hughes said. Jenkinson joked about getting a sign that read “By the Government of Afghanistan.” Hughes replied that he had, in fact, checked about getting one from the governor’s office, but they were still deciding on the font and style of their signs.

Some American soldiers came out of the base carrying a new pipe, and Gul Mohammed and his men rolled it into the culvert and started covering it with dirt and gravel. Afterwards, Hughes gave Gul Mohammed nearly $100 in local currency while Jenkinson took a picture. Hughes made a short speech for the assembled onlookers. “Well, Hajji Gul Mohammed, as you see we’ve fulfilled the promise we made to you. I hope you know that we are here to help rebuild Afghanistan.”

“When are you going to fix the power for the mosque? ” Gul Mohammed asked.

The line from ISAF is that the solution to Kandahar’s problems is more: more troops, more money, more civil-military missions, more road projects, more mentoring, more counterinsurgency. And its common narrative for the source of those problems is that neglect was responsible for the loss of the south—that the international community missed early opportunities to build institutions there, and that it allowed the Taliban to regroup, with Pakistani support, across the border.

The problem with this narrative, however, is that it elides the degree to which international patronage—primarily from the US military—has been driving political developments in the province since the very beginning of the West’s involvement in 2001. In today’s conflict in Kandahar, behind the rubric of “pro-” and “anti”-government forces, there lies a human terrain of haves and have-nots that is directly related to the foreign military presence and the vast amount of money it distributes.

A few weeks after my visit to Dand’s district centre with General Vance, I decided to return, this time with a few locals. First, though, my translator, Tariq, and I had to take a rickshaw out to Shkapur Darwaza, a poor, pell-mell neighbourhood in the south of the capital, known for its tough locals and their swaggering accents—a sort of Kandahari Bronx. Mohammed Ayub, a native of Dand, had agreed to tour us through his district, but he insisted on picking us up in Shkapur Darwaza because his car was unregistered, and with all the new checkpoints it was getting tough for him to drive into town. He’d have to cough up a big bribe to get his vehicle back, he complained, and who was going to pay for that?

We had picked a bad day to go to Dand. Someone had blown up a car packed with explosives along the road, in an attempt to kill Amadullah Nazek, the district governor. The suicide bomber missed Nazek, but killed six kids on their way to school, spraying blood and charred auto parts across the tarmac.

The tarmac itself was smooth and new—one of the many projects launched in Dand with international money. “Many things have gotten better since the foreigners came,” Ayub noted as we passed rows of brick kilns with four-storey mud towers. “Before, when there was flooding in Tarnak River, we couldn’t get into the city if, say, someone was sick and needed help. Now there’s a bridge, and the road is paved.”

The upsurge in foreign aid over the past year, most of it targeted for Deh-e Bagh, had created new resentments, however. Nazek had grown rich off the model village program. In a tag-team set-up classic to post-2001 Afghanistan, his brother, Fatay Khan, who ran a construction company, had become the primary contractor for Canadian and American projects routed through the district’s leadership. As an internal ISAF report published last March pointed out, “Working solely through Fatay Khan allows Nazek to control every aspect of development contracting, and to maximize his own profits.”

Heading south through the district, we arrived in the village of Rurabad, where an enormous misspelled billboard hailed the deceased Hajji Abdul Latif, a mujahedeen commander and the father of former provincial governor Gul Agha Sherzai, as “the Loin of Kandahar” (Sherzai means “son of the lion” in Pashto). Ayub slowed to a halt. A column of hulking armoured vehicles lined the road ahead, as American soldiers set about detonating three roadside bombs. The Afghan National Police officer blocking our way said local farmers had reported the explosives.

The billboard provided a clue as to why Dand District has remained an oasis of resistance to Taliban influence. Rurabad was Sherzai’s home village. In 2001, the US military and the CIA had given cash and air support to ex-mujahedeen figures like him in order to help them topple the Taliban government in southern Afghanistan. These Afghans subsequently profited enormously from the influx of international money. In Kandahar, it was strongmen from Dand who secured the greatest share of access to ISAF contracts and patronage. One of Sherzai’s brothers, Raziq, was a major general in the Afghan army who ran much of the contracting at Kandahar Airfield through his son’s construction company.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s family also hailed from Dand, from the village of Karz; his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was now the province’s undisputed power broker. The Karzais achieved their status by outmanoeuvring Sherzai in a post-2001 power struggle—politically, in the courts of opinion in Kabul and Washington, and materially, by having Ahmed Wali provide rented properties and private militias to the Americans in exchange for payments from the CIA.

Dand’s disproportionate access to the provincial and national political economies ensured that its tribes remained largely pro-government. Tribal groupings aren’t always a coherent way to explain the highly fragmented politics of Afghanistan—a particular tribe in one village might support the government, while its members in the next might support the Taliban—but they have an important influence on the way Dand operates. Most of the district’s population comprises homogenous groups of Barakzais and Popolzais connected through a thick fabric of kin networks and economic interests to power brokers like Sherzai, who is from the Barakzai tribe, and Karzai, who is from the Popolzai.

As Ayub saw it, Dand was one of the last districts in Kandahar without a grassroots Taliban insurgency not so much because of ISAF or the Canadians (who were, after all, also present in less secure places in the province) as because of the tribes, who each had a few hundred armed men capable of standing up to the insurgents if need be. “The reason we have security in Dand today is because of the militias,” Ayub said.

The Americans had recently supplied uniforms to these militia fighters, who were nominally part of the ANP but in reality remained loyal to their tribal leaders. In one incident a year earlier, a young civil servant from the Barakzai tribe had been kidnapped by the Taliban on his way home from work in Kandahar City, and taken to neighbouring Panjwai District, an area populated mostly by the Noorzai tribe, which has been largely excluded from power in post-2001 Kandahar. In response, a large group of armed men from the Barakzai tribe headed to Nakhonay, a village cluster bordering Dand, and grabbed a few dozen Noorzais at random. “We said, ‘If you return our man alive, then we will return yours alive,’” Ayub recounted.

“We didn’t care if they were Talibs,” Khalid Pashtun, a Barakzai member of parliament from Dand, later told me. The Noorzai elders in Nakhonay had then gone to the Taliban commander, a local named Janan Agha, and pleaded with him to release the Barakzai man, which he did. Pashtun chuckled as he remembered the case. “We taught them a good lesson. We had to draw a line—otherwise they would have done it again.”

Because dand’s security is so deeply linked to dynamics of patronage and marginalization, it could be extremely difficult for ISAF to replicate its perceived success there in other areas of the province. Panjwai District suggests a very different outcome, for example. The day we travelled through Dand, Canadian forces were in the midst of an offensive to take control of Nakhonay.

In 2006, during the famed Operation Medusa, the Canadians had defeated large concentrations of Panjwai Taliban foolish enough to stand up to artillery and air strikes. But they had been unable to win the support of the district’s population, and since then a low-intensity insurgency had kept areas outside the centre largely under Taliban control. Panjwai’s landscape of irrigation canals and thick orchards provided ideal cover for guerrilla operations, as the Soviets had learned. More to the point, it was inhabited by communities, clans, and tribes largely excluded by those who controlled political power and patronage in Kandahar Province—and sometimes outright persecuted by them. After the fall of the Taliban, Sherzai and other strongmen launched a campaign of persecution, kidnappings, and harassment against their rivals, often aided and encouraged by international forces, who were content to take their allies’ word that the houses being raided belonged to Taliban members. “We have a saying: if someone tells you the dog stole your ear, you should check your ear before you run after the dog,” a Kandahari friend commented to me. “The Americans were never doing that.”

Anand Gopal, a journalist who met with dozens of Kandahari Taliban as part of a study on the province’s insurgency for the New America Foundation, explained the dynamic to me this way: “The commanders would either get rewarded directly for positive intelligence, or they would have the backing of the Americans to go out and capture people. All of it was sanctioned by the Americans, because they were hungry for intelligence and captives.”

Gopal cited the case of Mullah Ahmad Shah, head of the powerful and widely feared court in the Mushan area of Panjwai under Taliban rule, as an example. “He was living at home since 2001, and had made his peace with the government, but because he was former Taliban and these strongmen had an incentive to harass former Taliban, he was imprisoned, beaten, and eventually driven back into the Taliban,” said Gopal.

Far from being separated from the insurgency, in accordance with ISAF’s counterinsurgency strategy, Panjwai’s civilian population had been caught between the two forces. Back in Kandahar City after our tour of Dand, I met with a farmer who had come that day from a town deep in western Panjwai, where the Taliban had complete control. The journey had been a challenge, he told me; the roads near his town were filled with ieds, but the Taliban, who were mostly local, had left signs with rocks and sticks warning villagers to avoid them. Everyone there, he said, was petrified about the coming ISAF offensive. He recalled a recent incident in which his uncle, a village elder, had begged a Taliban commander not to fire an anti-aircraft weapon from their area.

“What do you want me to do? ” the commander replied. “Not shoot the Americans? ”

With the surge, thousands of additional soldiers and billions of dollars in aid money have begun pouring into southern Afghanistan. Yet everything that’s wrong with Kandahar—the violence, the corruption, the lawlessness—has gotten worse. Which raises the question: is the military’s counterinsurgency strategy actually strengthening the very dynamics of corruption and marginalization it seeks to correct? The inflow of cash has outpaced other economic activity in Afghanistan by an order of magnitude. Since 2002, the US has allocated more than $51.5 billion for relief and development there, and as of this year was spending a separate $190 million per day on its military deployment. And according to the Congressional Research Service, the average yearly cost of maintaining a soldier in Afghanistan is expected to grow from $425,000 between 2005 and 2009 to $694,000 in 2010. This, in a country with a GDP of $27 billion in 2009.

Furthermore, Nisar Ahmad Rashedi, a mid-level contractor who has worked for both the Canadian and US militaries in the province since 2004, told me his experience was that as the volume of contracts increased, oversight decreased. “The Canadians were making small contracts for $5,000, and they were checking,” he said. “The Americans are not checking, and they’re paying $50,000, $60,000 or even $100,000 per contract.”

The torrent of easy money has unleashed bizarre market forces and affected every level of Afghan society. Once the Americans arrived, the most lucrative activity for a smart, connected person in Kandahar City, hands down, became to get a cut of the pie. Construction companies and development agencies were paying drivers and interpreters five to ten times the salaries of teachers or civil servants. For those with access to contracts or subcontracts, fortunes could be made. It was irrational to want to be a member of the government or the army—an honest one, at least. Inflation became so rampant that the few hundred dollars a month those jobs offered could barely provide for a small family.

Hamid Akhtar, a twenty-six-year-old former army captain who had recently joined an Afghan contracting company at Kandahar Airfield, remembered the idealism of his first days of service. As part of Afghanistan’s first graduating officer cohort, “I wanted to serve my country,” he said. “I loved wearing the uniform.”

Now he shook his head at his foolishness. “I should have thought about making money then,” he lamented. “There are guys who are millionaires now.”

The money was flowing to all sides of the conflict. In order to build roads or move supplies in a given area, whoever controlled security had to be paid. Often this meant international money would go to the Taliban. Last year, American officials estimated to a reporter for The Nation magazine that 10 percent of their logistics contracts went directly to insurgents.

“Of course I would pay the Taliban if I could; I can very easily find an intermediary here in the city,” Rashedi told me. He was a relative of Governor Wesa, though, which he claimed hampered his ability to work in volatile areas: “They won’t trust me.”

Afghan National Police commanders, meanwhile, were renting out their men and taking cuts of contracts in the areas they controlled. “Every commander here is a businessman,” said a contractor who works with US military intelligence.

“I usually pay the commander $250 per month for a soldier and $1,000 per month for a vehicle,” Rashedi confirmed. “If it is for a short period or in a very dangerous area, we work out a special rate.” Another Kandahari contractor reported similar fees.

Given the perverse incentive system ISAF has created, powerful Afghans now have a strong interest in perpetuating the conflict. A member of US military intelligence in Kandahar told me that when he was supporting the 82nd Airborne on a deployment to the Arghandab Valley in partnership with the Afghan National Civil Order Police, a powerful local Afghan National Police commander, upset about the effect their arrival might have on his enterprise, publicly warned that he could make or break security in his area. That night, someone wielding an AGS-17, a Russian-made grenade launcher, attacked American and Afghan forces, killing one ANCOP soldier. “They could only have gotten that weapon from the ANP,” the US soldier said. He suspected the police commander was involved in the attack. The next day, the Americans discovered that an ANP checkpoint was missing its ags-17. When they questioned the man responsible, the soldier recalled, “he said he had given it to his cousin to repair.”

The military has encouraged similar dynamics, but on a massive, systemic scale, with its handling of logistics in Afghanistan. Unlike in Iraq, where the US invaded with massive force and secured its supply chains through Kuwait, American involvement in Afghanistan began with a Rumsfeldian “light footprint” that relied on air power and local militias. As a result, its supply chains extended across hundreds of kilometres of remote, rugged terrain, out to Pakistan and Central Asia, and the Americans ended up paying cash to anyone who could guarantee safe passage.

Thanks to the increasingly corrupt Afghan government, the flourishing insurgency, and the massive increase in troop strength and foreign money, this system has now mutated into a vast web of private security and trucking companies, informal militias, and insurgents, through which mega-contracts like the US’s $2.16-billion Host Nations Trucking initiative flowed. “The HNT contract fuels warlordism, extortion, and corruption, and it may be a significant source of funding for insurgents,” noted a congressional investigation in June.

The Soviets experienced similar dynamics. At the height of their occupation, more than half of their troops were tied down protecting roads and supply lines. But, when they began drawing down their forces in the late ’80s, they resorted to paying mujahedeen groups not to attack their convoys. The practice continued under President Mohammad Najibullah’s Communist government, until the Soviets stopped providing financial aid to his regime and it collapsed.

Under ISAF, international money—along with income from drugs and smuggling—has eaten through Afghan government and society like a universal solvent. A study this year by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated corruption-related payments at one-quarter of Afghanistan’s GDP, noting that they had reached “macroeconomic dimensions.” This kind of corruption, the report argued, was not somehow “traditional” to Afghan society, but rather the result of customary patronage arrangements being overwhelmed by the influx of money. “The old patron-client relations, including the services provided by public administrators, have been affected in scope, breadth and depth—transformed into a monumental, perverse and growing machinery for criminal graft.”

Mohammed Anas, the executive director of the governor’s office, worked for the Communists, the mujahedeen, the Taliban, and the Karzai regime, and he told me this was the worst corruption he had ever seen. The least, he said, was under the Communists. “In those times, to have clothes, food, and a home was enough,” he explained. “Nowadays, everyone is trying to get rich. They think, ‘I’m only here for a short time—I’ve got to take the money that I can.’”

This behind-the-scenes struggle for money has become the real story of Kandahar’s politics, leaving formal institutions to play only a marginal role. The province has had five governors in the past nine years, while the major power brokers (those who remain alive) have only consolidated their positions. Anas’s boss, the current governor, Tooryalai Wesa, is a former university professor who spent thirteen years living in Canada. His influence in the province depends largely on his relationship with Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali, chair of the provincial council, a position of far less official importance.

I asked Ben Rowswell, Canada’s former civilian representative in Kandahar Province, if the fact that power continued to flow through informal networks meant that the West’s focus on institution building was misplaced. “There were debates in 2009 in media and academic circles, which were to some degree reflected inside ISAF, on how to deal with these power brokers,” he replied. “I think we took the right decision. Our first and foremost objective must be to strengthen formal institutions. Only that way can you put the average citizen in charge.”

This fall’s major military operations will no doubt establish greater physical control over the areas surrounding Kandahar City, by virtue of ISAF’s might. But everyone knows the international forces won’t be staying for long. “It is a fifteen-year job—but not a fifteen-year job for us,” Vance had said.

Will ISAF leave any lasting improvements in place? Generals and diplomats are optimistic that their counterinsurgency and governance efforts will succeed in building on the stability of places like Dand, and that they will convince the people of Kandahar to support their government. In September, Vance told a reporter he hoped Nakhonay would be like Deh-e Bagh in a year.

But the successes of Deh-e Bagh, such as they were, were no less bound up in the virulent network of corruption that has brought stability to a few other parts of Kandahar while alienating the rest. This network has grown alongside the Western forces since they created it in 2001, and it gets stronger with every bullet or meal consumed by soldiers and development workers brought in for the surge. Nation building, as practised by the military in Afghanistan, has become self-defeating.

Nevertheless, the internationals I encountered in Kandahar believed almost uniformly in the possibility of a solution to the mess, given more resources and better insight. And no wonder—only the most cynical could carry out their jobs otherwise. Afghans, though, have no such professional requirements of faith. Every local I spoke with in Kandahar City was at pains to remind me that the political and civilian assassinations continued unabated, and that government corruption was worsening. Their staunch pessimism stood in stark contrast to the optimism of the generals. “It’s all repeating, like in Najibullah’s time,” Anas said. “Even with all of our deaths, this war will not be finished. It’s not possible to end it.”

This appeared in the December 2010 issue.

Matthieu Aikins
Matthieu Aikins has reported from Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.