Hamkari Baraye Kandahar aka Deepwater Horizon
Containing both will be slow, but doable
by Jonathan Pan
The upcoming Kandahar operation "Hamkari Baraye Kandahar" reminds me of the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill. Concerning all the efforts that BP is exerting at containing
the oil spill, Chris Gidez, a former oil company public relations man,
"At the end of the day, the best public relations and advertising in the world cannot
compete with that live video stream of that oil coming out of the bottom of the
sea." The similarity to Hamkari is that the combined political, economic, and military
might of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not been able to
stop the Taliban's influence (the oil) from spreading to the population (the sea).
The reason for this failure begins with "strategic communications." ISAF should
worry about stopping the oil rather than talking about it; it needs to immediately
follow a "underpromise and overachieve" strategy rather than worrying about "strategic
For starters, "Hamkari Baraye Kandahar" means "Cooperation for Kandahar" in Dari.
"It is not the first time that a non-Pashto term is being used in the Pashtun-populated
southern Afghanistan." The previous major operation in Helmand was called Operation
"Moshtarak," or Together or Joint in Dari. What was also not learned from Moshtarak,
or the Marjah offensive, goes beyond semantics. While the Marjah offensive was touted
as a military success, it is viewed by many to be a governance failure. Of the 400
men from Marjah, Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar City that were
by the International Council on Security and Development, "61% of those interviewed
feel more negative about NATO forces than before the military offensive." Even Major
General Nick Carter, the commander of the volatile Regional Command South, conceded
that the three-month old Moshtarak
about three to four months away from success. By hyping up Moshtarak, the Afghan
people felt promised to a certain level of security and governance. While the security
aspect has mainly been achieved, the governance aspect has not been able to keep
up with the pace. Make no mistake- capacity building takes time in a country torn
by war for over 30 years while the best and brightest study and work abroad or work
for international organizations. However, the idea of successful and quick governance
did not just enter the minds of Marjah residents- there was a failure in the message.
The primary goal of Moshtarak was supposed to win the support of local residents.
That was why before Moshtarak even began,
ISAF "said publicly for weeks that an invasion of Marja was imminent." Aside
from possibly displacing some Taliban with the message, the message also created
expectations. ISAF is a conglomeration of the world's powers, led by the United
States. Many Afghans are frustrated by the fact that a world hegemon capable of
sending a man to the moon cannot fix governance in a few months. As the Kandahar
surge begins this fall, ISAF needs to worry more about actions than about the media.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommends "to worry
a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions
communicate." ("Strategic Communications: Getting Back to Basics." Joint Forces
Quarterly. Issue 55, 4th Quarter, 2009)
Even before the Marjah offensive finished,
officials were talking about Kandahar as a "future kinetic area." With
the leak that a Kandahar "offensive" on the way, it took ISAF approximately eleven
weeks to start promoting the offensive not as a military operation but rather an
extension of local governance; President Karzai recently called it a "process."
The mismanagement of Kandahar operation on the media front has led to an artificially
created endgame scenario.
Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post writes "There is no Plan B." This
is grossly unfair and unwise as the incoming U.S. brigade combat teams have to deliver
near-impossible results with near-impossible timelines. All the while, casualties
are mounting. ISAF had 51 casualties in May, 24 more than last year. The months
from June through October 2009 had the most casualties. Furthermore, the Taliban
will seek to derail the upcoming elections, especially of the district councils,
to prevent governance from reaching down to the district levels where the Taliban's
shariat court reigns. If recent history can serve as an indicator, ISAF will have
a tough fight this summer.
While the media portrayal of Hamkari has been negative, battles and skirmishes
in the governance war are being won every day by Kandahar government officials while
being coached by the recently relevant Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team.
The influx of new U.S. brigades should immediately adopt a "underpromise and overachieve"
strategy. Are there any PowerPoint slides or Excel spreadsheets that can guide them
in this pursuit? Nope. Admiral Mullen sums it up quite nicely, "Americans simply
showed up and did the right thing because it was, well, the right thing to do" ((JFQ
Iss 55, Q4 '09). So what is the right thing to do? Enable the Afghan government
to build governance by providing Afghan officials with up-armored vehicles and armed
security groups, focusing on small projects below $10,000 that prevents commercial
warlords from trying to get a cut ($10,000 goes a long way in Kandahar), and have
a responsive Afghan government response after every "spectacular" attack by the
It's tough and dangerous job being an Afghan official these days. Is maintaining
a fleet of up-armored vehicles and private security sustainable in the long run?
Of course not -- but this isn't post-conflict reconstruction, this is war -- war requires
stabilization, not development. The focus on smaller projects prevents the common
complaint that most Afghans echo, "Where is the money going?" Well, at least $3
million is accounted for- it was spent by one Afghan contractor in Las Vegas.
As of June 5, 2010, there have been 736 projects totaling $41,125,838 spent in
Regional Command South with the U.S. military's Commander's Emergency Response Program
during Fiscal Year 2010. 19 of those projects constituted $22,964,967, or 55.8%
of the expenditures. The other 717 projects are all under $200,000, and accounted
for 44.2% ($18,160,870) of the total (Thank God that the Military loves Excel because
civilian spending is a black hole). I will argue that it is the 717 projects that
are really going to the Afghan people.
To that end, I question whether the Kandahar Electrification project, which costs
$569,914,757, is really going to help win the war. That project reflects more than
military-civilian tensions or the development versus stabilization argument
that the media loves to highlight. It exhibits the fact that the "better try than
not trying at all" strategy is deeply embedded within the American psyche.
Aaron David Miller thinks that "this is an appropriate slogan for a high school
football team; it's not a substitute for a well-thought-out strategy for the world's
greatest power." Capitalizing on the football analogy, it is time to stop quarterbacking
the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and give the Afghans the win.
Recently, the Deepwater Horizon has eclipsed Exxon Valdez as the worst oil spill
in U.S. history. Afghanistan has just exceeded Vietnam as the longest war. However,
both oil spills are slowly being contained. The new Deputy Provincial Governor of
Kandahar Province, Latif Ashna, has stepped up and became relevant, unlike his predecessor.
Arghandab is still going strong even after the assassination of the beloved Haji
Abdul Jabar. The incoming US brigades have a real shot at getting to the tipping
point if they immediately follow a "underpromise and overachieve" strategy focused
on letting the right actions deliver the message. ISAF must protect the few and
the brave who will serve in critical Afghan government positions with up-armored
vehicles and private security, focus on projects $10,000 and under to channel wealth
and stabilization to the people rather than the commercial warlords, and finally
have a responsive response for every "spectacular attack" by the Taliban, i.e. Governor
Wesa should have personally went to Nagahan after the wedding suicide attack in
June. If Hamkari follows this strategy and avoids the mistakes of Moshtarak, not
only will a "bleeding ulcer" be avoided but ISAF will have a chance of helping the
Afghan government deliver the elusive governance victory.
Captain Jonathan Pan is serving in Afghanistan. The views in this article
are solely of the author and not those of the Department of Defense.