In a week where security in Afghanistan seems headed anywhere but up (rocket strikes on Kabul, a Taliban frontal assault in Logar province today), the question on many a commentator's lips has been: where is this all going?
Some of the strongest analysis on stabilizing Afghanistan recently has come from Andrew Exum who just took a break from his position at the Center for New American Security to act as some-time advisor to General McChrystal. I was struck by a comment he made in an interview on the World Politics Review:
"The fall of Kandahar is not going to look like the Taliban rolling down the streets in tanks. The fall of Kandahar is going to look like the Taliban steadily making ground with a campaign of fear and intimidation, and creating an environment in which the Afghan government can't operate in Kandahar, and Kandahar eventually becomes ideologically inhospitable to the government of Afghanistan, never mind Coalition forces."
I think Ex is dead on. But by that standard, I have to question: Has Kandahar already fallen? • Taliban intimidation has virtually curtailed any sense of normal life in Kandahar. Open support for the government, much less international forces, is an invitation for a night letter or worse. Government officials, teachers, and aid workers (those left) are regularly killed, assaulted, or otherwise harassed. Many of the pro-government clergy in Kandahar have already been assassinated or forced to go into hiding because of threats in the last few years. Girls cannot go to school without fear of attacks, the most notable being an acid attack on 15 girls going to school.
• After years of extreme security threats, frequent incidents of air strikes and nighttime raids, high government corruption and graft, and a dearth of government protection or services, the majority of the population, if not ideologically pro-Taliban, are against the international military presence and the Afghan government (at least in its current iteration).
• The Afghan government and the international community have virtually ceased to operate in any meaningful capacity in Kandahar due to extreme security threats. Afghan government officials do not move at all, except under tight security and in a limited security corridor. Attacks on Afghan National Police are routine - a friend who had just returned from Kandahar recently showed me a picture of an ANP officer with an ax to the back of the head.
• Most humanitarian workers and journalists have simply pulled out of Kandahar because they cannot operate under the intense security restrictions. Those who remain are prisoners to their compounds. The incidents that have happened when they do leave their compounds are chilling. A brave researcher, Paula Loyd, was doused in cooking oil and set on fire when she ventured out of her compound last year.
With this reality present in large swaths of Afghanistan, the question is less where is this situation going, but where has it already gone? And the critical follow-up to that: Is there a way to turn it around?