KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The largest and most important U.S. offensive of the Afghan war is under way in this country's second-largest city, but its success will depend more on politics than guns.
Empires have fought over this spot, which sits amid fertile farmlands along critical trade routes through South and Central Asia; it was the home of Afghan kings and the spiritual home of the Taliban.
That group has reinfiltrated the city, which is plagued by suicide bombs, drug lords, assassinations, and a corrupt political system.
Security is so dicey that when Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, visited Kandahar last week, the journalists in his party were required to ride in a boxy, armored "people pod," from which we could see the deserted streets only on TV monitors.
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"I believe Kandahar represents the real center of gravity in reversing (the Taliban's) momentum," Mullen had told us earlier. But then he added the kicker: Success won't be achieved "if we cannot eliminate the majority of the corruption there and set up legitimate governance. We can succeed militarily and it's not going to work."
I heard the same theme in interviews with top U.S. officials: Success in Kandahar will not be like Iraq's battle of Fallujah — or D-Day. Said one official: "If we can work it politically, that's what we're going to do."
The strategy is to use U.S. troops to clear the Taliban from districts west of Kandahar through which it infiltrated the city. The city will be blanketed with checkpoints patrolled jointly by U.S. and Afghan security forces. But rather than enter with force, the goal is to reshape Kandahar politics so as to placate groups that feel left out.
Yet it's far from clear that U.S. officials have the knowledge or the tools to affect Kandahar's complex political equation.
For one thing, good intelligence about the city's political makeup is lacking. And then there's the double Karzai factor. On one hand, U.S. officials insist that President Hamid Karzai must play a key role in revamping Kandahar politics, convening a council of elders where all factions and tribes are represented. On the other hand, his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, or AWK as he is often called, heads Kandahar's provincial council and is a primary obstacle to any kind of inclusive politics.
AWK, who many believe is involved in the drug trade, has ensured that three or four tribes control Kandahar's politics; the excluded groups either tolerate or implicitly support the Taliban. U.S. officials have tried fruitlessly to persuade Hamid Karzai to rein in his brother. Question: Why should President Karzai assume we really want his brother curbed when everyone knows AWK is tight with the CIA?
At any rate, U.S. officials say they'll try to work around the brother. Every Kandahar district is supposed to convene a "fully representative" council to air grievances. It's hoped these meetings, along with the huge council led by Karzai — and improved security — will mollify the alienated.
However, it's unclear who will choose the members of these many councils. I asked Kandahar's provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, a man of questionable background, about AWK, and he sputtered: "He's the guy who keeps Kandahar stable. He keeps the balance here."
Lately, the Afghan president has been railing against the West, and he reportedly gave a cold reception to President Obama when he visited Kabul last week. However, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, has worked tirelessly to build a relationship of trust with Karzai.
McChrystal believes Karzai is committed and capable of leading. If Karzai steps up, U.S. officials think Kandahar's politics will shift and his brother will be brought into line. If McChrystal is correct, success in Kandahar would change people's perceptions about the Taliban's prospects and boost Karzai's standing. U.S. officials would be happy to let him take the credit. But the many questions that hang over this scenario make the odds on Kandahar daunting.
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER