After The Surge, The Fight For Kandahar Goes On

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Last year's U.S. troops surge in southern Afghanistan was aimed at ousting the Taliban from much of its home turf. So what does Kandahar province look like today? NPR's Quil Lawrence spent a week in the region and shares his impressions with host Audie Cornish.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

The news from Afghanistan these days is mixed. Yesterday, Taliban forces tried to blast their way onto an American base in eastern Afghanistan. But overall, NATO says violence in the country is starting to trend downwards. This is due largely to the surge of coalition forces who have seized territory from militants in the south, according to a senior official from the American-led coalition.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has just spent a week in the southern city of Kandahar, and he joins us now. Welcome, Quil.


CORNISH: What more do you go about yesterday's attack?

LAWRENCE: We know that a group of suicide bombers, including one car bomb, tried to breach a base in the Panjshir Valley. They didn't get into the base. And we've see this kind of attack before, where about half a dozen men or less hurled themselves at these huge, fortified American bases. The American officials say that the Taliban do this for effect.

It does make an impression, especially when they're able to mount an attack in a place like the Panjshir Valley, which is perhaps considered the most stable province in the country. Most of the fighters from Panjshir are the same ones who helped the U.S.-led coalition overthrow the Taliban 10 years ago. And there's never been a suicide attack there until now.

CORNISH: Help us reconcile this. It's hard to think with the news you're telling us now that violence is actually trending downward.

LAWRENCE: Well again, NATO officials say that some of these attacks happen just to try and make a spectacular effect in the press, including in some areas where the Taliban traditionally haven't been able to make inroads. A senior NATO official has briefed us to say that NATO sees this entire summer fighting season - normally the heaviest fighting happens in the summer - that the Taliban failed in all of their objectives over the summer.

They fail to take back all of this key territory in the southern Provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, which are seen as both the economic and political heart of the insurgency. The official said that heavy fighting is continuing on the east along the Pakistani border, and that the Haqqani network inside of Pakistan is still mounting attacks, like the high-profile assaults we've seen on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel this summer, or last month's bombardment of the U.S. Embassy.

But the NATO official says that the numbers back them up, in suggesting that the insurgency's momentum has turned around. They're mounting less attacks. And in their heartland in the south, they haven't managed to take back any of the territory they lost.

CORNISH: And you mentioned Kandahar is one of the areas where NATO says violence is lower. But after spending most of the last week there, does that match up with your experience there?

LAWRENCE: Well, in many ways it does. I was able to drive myself out to the formerly no-go district of Panjwai, which is 20, 30 minutes west of Kandahar City. I didn't stay long. I was wearing Afghan clothes and I was wearing a pretty shaggy beard. But this was unthinkable even six months ago.

Farmers I spoke with at the market there, from other former battlefields like the Arghandab district, north of Kandahar, say that they are now able to drive their goods to market. And this, again, was impossible a year back because these were full-fledged battle zones with land mines and booby-traps everywhere.

CORNISH: And that leads to my follow-up question about public perception. I mean in Kandahar and across the country, how are people in that country feeling about the violence versus what NATO officials have to say?

LAWRENCE: Despite the gains, the United Nations and other groups say civilian casualties are still at an all-time high. So despite NATO's claim that the numbers of attacks are down, the civilian population doesn't seem to be feeling that. And both NATO and the U.N. agree that the insurgents are responsible for the vast majority of these civilian deaths. But that's still, in the end, means that the government and NATO allies are failing to protect the civilian population.

CORNISH: We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Audie.

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