The Taliban's Campaign for Kandahar

Executive Summary

  • This paper describes the Taliban’s multi-year campaign to exert control over Kandahar City.  Kandahar is the center of gravity of the Quetta Shura Taliban’s efforts in Afghanistan.   The paper demonstrates why Coalition forces have hitherto inadequately responded to the Taliban in Kandahar, and explains why ISAF will most likely allocate additional forces to the districts around Kandahar City in 2010.
    • The Quetta Shura Taliban has made Kandahar and its provincial capital, Kandahar City, primary objectives of their campaign in southern Afghanistan.  
    • The Taliban has waged a campaign since 2004 with a clear and constant objective: to exert control over Kandahar City.  To accomplish this objective, the Taliban sought to take control of the populated areas surrounding Kandahar City district by district.
    • The key districts surrounding Kandahar city are Zhari, Panjwai, Khakrez, Arghandab, and Dand.
    • The Taliban attempted to advance against Kandahar City in 2004 from their bases in Uruzgan, Zabul, and Shah Wali Kot.  When they were checked by a battalion of U.S. forces, the Taliban worked to extend their lines of communication westward in 2005, to secure a major east-west route into northern Helmand in order to approach Kandahar City from the west.
    • The Taliban expanded their control of the Zhari and Panjwai districts, west of Kandahar City, in 2006 but ISAF prevented the Taliban from using these areas as a base for attacks on Kandahar City. 
    • Canadian forces focused on fighting the Taliban for control of Zhari and Panjwai in 2007 and early 2008.  This campaign ultimately developed into a costly stalemate, as the Canadians lacked the forces required to clear the Taliban from the area decisively.
    • While the Taliban continued to target the Canadians in Zhari and Panjwai in 2007 and 2008, they organized and conducted a campaign to advance on Kandahar City from the north.
    • The objective of this campaign was the Arghandab district, located just north of Kandahar City. Arghandab would be an ideal safehaven from which insurgents could project their power into the provincial capital.
    • Arghandab, however, was initially geographically defensible and politically hostile to the Taliban. The Arghandab district was the homeland of the Alokozai tribe, over which Mullah Naqib, the key Alokozai tribal leader, had exercised strong control since the 1980s.  Mullah Naqib opposed Taliban rule after 2001.  As long as Naqib’s tribal commanders nd their militias remained hostile to the Taliban, they posed a serious obstacle to any advance through the Arghandab district.
    • In preparation for their attack on Arghandab, the Taliban maneuvered into Khakrez district during the spring and summer of 2007. Control of Khakrez linked several key Taliban positions in western and northern Kandahar and allowed resources from each of these fronts to move into Arghandab district. 
    • The Taliban launched their initial attack into Arghandab in October 2007, after the natural death of Mullah Naqib. This assault marked the beginning of an intense campaign to erode the will of the population in Arghandab to resist Taliban control. 
    • The Taliban gained control of Arghandab by using targeted violence to intimidate local leaders, supplemented with an intimidation campaign and the implementation of a judicial system to increase the Taliban’s legitimacy.
    • The Taliban had solidified their control of Arghandab and other key areas surrounding Kandahar City by late 2008, allowing them to project force into the provincial capital.
    • Establishing control over Arghandab and building support networks in the northern, western, and southwestern belts of Kandahar City dramatically increased the Taliban’s ability to wage a campaign of intimidation and terror in Kandahar City in 2008 and 2009. 
    • The Taliban have targeted key provincial government figures, pro-government mullahs, the Afghan National Security Forces, and NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). In addition to attempting to destroy the Afghan government in Kandahar, the Taliban have waged a parallel campaign to exert control over the lives of Kandahar’s citizens through intimidation and shadow governance structures.
  • ISAF failed to prioritize the province over Helmand, despite the importance of Kandahar.  ISAF also made poor decisions on where to position its forces within the province, including the reluctance to position sufficient coalition forces inside Kandahar City. The Taliban, therefore, met minimal ISAF resistance as it expanded its control over Kandahar City and its suburbs in 2008 and 2009.
  • ISAF under the command of General McKiernan focused its resources in southern Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009 on fighting in Helmand and border interdiction in Spin Boldak and Barham Chah.
  • General Stanley McChrystal arrived too late in the spring of 2009 fundamentally to change General McKiernan’s campaign plan and force allocations for the summer season.  As a result, Helmand remained the priority.
  • The battalion of U.S. forces now fighting in Arghandab is insufficient to reverse the Taliban’s entrenched control over the strategically critical Arghandab district in the time available. 
  • ISAF has only been disrupting the Taliban in Kandahar, largely on account of resource constraints. This approach is flawed, as constant disruption cannot get ISAF closer to an endstate of the prolonged, if not permanent, reduction of Taliban violence and intimidation necessary to prevent the insurgency from having a strategic, delegitimizing effect on the government of Afghanistan.
  • ISAF’s task in Kandahar must be to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, eliminate its sanctuaries around Kandahar City, and neutralize its capabilities to attack Kandahar.
  • Removing the Taliban sanctuaries in turn necessitates a properly-resourced counterinsurgency campaign that is supported by simultaneous and mutually supporting operations throughout Kandahar Province and some of Helmand. 
  • Defeating the Taliban – or at least neutralizing and selectively destroying it –requires more Coalition and Afghan forces in Kandahar Province. 
  • Success depends not only on the number of troops but also on the intelligent application of counterinsurgency strategy and a proper understanding of enemy strategy.
  • The current distribution of ISAF units in Kandahar must be adjusted to achieve the force densities needed to neutralize or defeat the Taliban.  Arghandab and the suburbs of Kandahar City must be prioritized over areas of secondary strategic significance.
    • If ISAF does not generate sufficient force densities in critical areas, its attempted counteroffensive will fail, giving enemy fighters a permissive environment and allowing the Taliban’s campaign of terror to continue in Kandahar City.
  • Insufficiently resourcing the fight in Arghandab and the suburbs of Kandahar risks the same sort of failure that ISAF experienced during its campaign in Zhari and Panjwai in 2007 and 2008. 
  • Destroying the insurgents in Kandahar is a critical and necessary first step for reversing the Taliban’s gains across southern Afghanistan and neutralizing their effects on the entire country.


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