Kandahar presents critical Afghan test
By Abubakar Siddique
Songs praising the beauty of Kandahar once echoed in the streets of its
capital. But today's violent reality is a far cry from that fabled past.
Shah Mohammad is a 36-year-old shopkeeper in Kandahar. Like many, he is shocked
by the brutality and scale of last week's suicide car-bomb attack, which killed
at least 41 people and injured more than 70.
The blast occurred minutes after Kandaharis broke their day-long Ramadan fast
and was so powerful that it destroyed a whole block of offices, shops and
Mohammad's shop is a couple of hundred meters away from the
blast site. The explosion smashed his front windows. But he was back in his
shop two days after the August 25 bombing.
Like many in the city, he is in despair and sees no way out of the current
"This [bombing] means that these people are fighting against life," he says.
"But life is a gift of God and we need to celebrate it and spend it in
happiness, brotherly harmony and as good Muslims."
Vying for power
This once peaceful region of pomegranate orchards and vineyards was the seat of
Afghan royalty and the elite for centuries, until the 1979 Soviet invasion
radically altered local power structures.
With the demise of the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001, former mujahideen
commanders and regional strongmen once again began vying for power, drawing on
complicated tribal strategies, which alienated many locals. This has helped the
Taliban stage a comeback in their former Kandahar stronghold.
The competition and uncertainty in Kandahar province has major implications for
the neighboring provinces of Zabul, Helmand, Uruzgan and Farah, and presents a
key test both for the incoming Afghan administration and for US General Stanley
McChrystal, the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
forces in the country.
The current situation has raised the specter of the mid-1990s civil war among
anti-Soviet mujahideen factions, who pushed the region to complete anarchy as
they fought for control of political power, the drug trade and the region's
important trade route from neighboring Pakistan.
Local analysts say insecurity is now at an all-time high in Kandahar, forcing
people in outlying districts, back under Taliban control, to move to Kandahar
city, as richer city residents in turn move to the relative safety of Kabul and
the western Afghan city of Herat.
Plenty of blame
The Taliban have strengthened their control over many outlying districts and
are now knocking on the doors of Kandahar city.
Felix Kuehn is a young German journalist and researcher who has lived in
Kandahar for many years. He tells RFE/RL that the blame for Kandahar's descent
into its current state is shouldered by many.
"Within the last seven to eight years of this conflict, close to everyone I
know has lost somebody close to him through suicide bombings, through foreign
bombardment," Kuehn says, adding that some security policies implemented by
international troops have gone wrong.
"The Canadians have done a poor job in trying to maintain security. The local
government is also partially to blame. There has been an influx of different
governors coming and going," he says. "And the Taliban have done a very good
job with taking out the middle management [among the government officials]."
The media often portray the conflict in Kandahar as being primarily driven by
ideologically motivated Taliban extremists who want to once again overrun the
region to impose their harsh rule. But Kuehn says the conflict on the ground is
more complex. He cites the example of competing construction companies who
frequently bomb each other's projects to take them over.
"The government and the foreigners have failed to include a vast part of the
population, particularly the tribal leadership," Kuehn says, adding that these
leaders doubt the Afghan government's survival and the staying power of its
"As long as they are not with the government and support the government
structures, which are incredibly corrupt, specifically in Kandahar, as long as
that is going on, there will not be a possibility for improvement," he says.
Intense political competition
Mohammad Yunos Fakur is a Kabul-based Afghan analyst who has a nuanced
understanding of the complex tribal politics in Afghanistan's southern Pashtun
heartland. He tells RFE/RL that the root of instability in Kandahar lies in the
intense political competition among leading Pashtun tribal families and clans,
which the Afghan governments before the Soviet invasion avoided by appointing
outsiders to run Kandahar.
Fakur says that after the fall of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai's younger
half brother and Popalzai chieftain, Ahmad Wali Karzai, outmaneuvered his local
political rivals from the families of former governor Gul Agha Sherzai and the
late mujahideen commander Mullah Naqib. Through extensive alliances and deals
he established himself as the undisputed leader of the region as provincial
This, Fakur says, has had far-reaching consequences.
"This resulted in the harmony and national unity in Kandahar and the country at
large being damaged," he says, adding, "The disunity and suffering of the
people of Kandahar affects the whole of Afghanistan. That is why the situation
is tense across Afghanistan."
Fakur claims that these three families currently control 65 out of a total of
68 senior administrative posts in the province. And this has alienated many -
particularly the Ghilzai tribes who are historical rivals of the Durranis. He
claims that most senior Taliban leaders in southern Afghanistan are disgruntled
For the past two-and-a-half centuries, most Afghan kings were Durranis, as is
its current president, Hamid Karzai, but Ghilzais take credit for establishing
the country after defeating the Persian Safavid Empire in the early 18th
Fakur says that resolving Kandahar's tribal rivalries is the only way to bring
stability into the region.
"If we have reasonable government here, and as the [Barack] Obama
administration has been saying, they talk to the tribal leaders to bring them
into the government’s fold," Fakur says, "this will restore the regional
balances and pressure those [insurgents] who are now working with foreign
intelligence services. And this will do a lot to bring peace to Afghanistan."
More troops won't help
But those in power in Kandahar have a different perspective.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the region's most powerful man and head of the Kandahar
provincial council, rejects the assertions that the government's failures are
contributing to increasing Taliban strength.
Wali Karzai, whom critics blame for what is going wrong in Kandahar, says that
sending more Western troops won't help and only including more locals can
effectively counter the Taliban tactics of targeted assassinations, suicide
attacks and ambushes.
"They need to make one change, which is that more Afghans, more people from
this region, should participate in their battles," he says. "Whether you call
them Arbakis [tribal volunteer militia] or local patriotic forces, they should
be formed. And they can fight their enemies and, inshallah, will control
But such views increasingly have few buyers in the West.
Julian Lindley-French is a professor of military operational science at the
Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands and closely follows developments in
southern Afghanistan. He says the British, US and Afghan military operations in
neighboring Helmand Province have forced the Taliban to configure a new supply
route through Kandahar to the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, where the
Taliban leadership is believed to be hiding. And this might explain the recent
surge in violence around Kandahar.
Lindley-French says he expects the United States to put Afghan reconciliation
front and center in its updated strategy and will encourage the addressing of
genuine local grievances in the southern and eastern Pashtun heartland. But
Washington will expect the Afghan government to meet it half way.
"The coalition has a right to expect better governance, better performance and
a willingness to be less factional in the way governance is applied across the
country," Lindley-French says. "If that does not change, then we are at a
critical point. I cannot see how the coalition could sustain its effort if
there is no chance of reasonable progress."
If Karzai is re-elected, Kandahar will be his critical first test. If he loses
control there, many believe he will have lost the country.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan Correspondent Salih Muhammad Salih contributed
to this report.