The charred remains of cars and motorcycles, from a recent suicide bomb, litters the parking lot adjacent to the heavily fortified Canadian military base in Kandehar—a graphic warning that the Taliban are at the Coalition’s gates. A wave of recent attacks and assassinations targeting NATO allies has presented a serious challenge to the ongoing operations in Kandahar and to the consolidation of gains in neighboring Helmand province, even as Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, sets milestones for Afghan security during this week’s international conference in Kabul. While media pundits and policymakers in Washington are focused on the military dimensions of this conflict, a far less dramatic battle is being fought daily by an army of civilian relief workers and development specialists struggling to win hearts and minds of a skeptical Pashtun population. In the words of one development officer and former U.S. Army infantryman: “We are the frontline warriors in an asymmetrical war.”
In contrast to the recent offensive in Marja, which has had lackluster results in dampening the Taliban insurgency, the battle for Kandahar has been relatively light on firepower. It has instead focused on garnering goodwill among Kandahar’s population by supporting improved governance, infrastructure development, economic growth and employment. As a result, the much vaunted thrust of the campaign has been principally a civilian effort, led by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners. The use of development-focused “soft-power” elements to enhance security is not new to U.S. Central Command strategists. It has been a core component of General David Peterus’ successful counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq and there can be no doubt that the Taliban are aware of the blurred line between civilian stabilization efforts and military engagements. For this reason, the past several months have seen a surge in insurgent attacks against USAID-contracted partners who work on implementing development projects throughout southern Afghanistan. The most dramatic of these attacks occurred in April in Kandahar city, when explosions devastated compounds used by employees of several USAID funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), causing over a dozen casualties, a number likely to increase with time as the psychological impact of the blasts takes it toll on the survivors. Throughout the development community in Kandahar fear of explosive devices has been coupled with stories of Afghan staff resignations due to a campaign of intimidation by the Taliban. One Afghan NGO employee reported that he had received a call telling him to “stop working with the Americans” or his family will be killed. Another Afghan talked of a coworker being gunned down by men on motorcycles, a preferred means of transport by Taliban assassins. Not surprisingly, the rising trend of targeted violence has led to an exodus of NGOs and compelled a number of nonaligned humanitarian and international organizations, including the United Nations, to leave Kandahar altogether. In addition, numerous thwarted attacks and near misses have had a devastating effect on the moral of civilians engaged in stabilization projects in this part of Afghanistan.