Afghan Fighting Season May Be Over Until Spring

In a major military offensive, thousands of U.S. and Afghan forces are sweeping through the rural areas north and west of Kandahar province. But they are finding few Taliban because they have either left the area or blended into the population. It may not be until next June before it's known whether the offensive was a success.

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In Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops have been sweeping through Kandahar province. That's the heart of insurgent territory. The man commanding those forces is a British officer, Major General Nick Carter.

NPR's Tom Bowman met with General Carter in Kandahar province.

TOM BOWMAN: Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban movement. And Kandahar is seen as a big fight. If the Taliban can be beaten here, the war might be salvaged. So far, U.S. and Afghan forces are surprised by the lack of resistance from insurgent fighters. General Carter offers a couple of reasons. The first: The fighting season could be over.

Major General NICK CARTER (Commander British Forces, Afghanistan): Part of it may be down to seasonality and the fact that they're disappearing for the winter because the leaf is coming off the tree.

BOWMAN: The leafy trees that camouflage Taliban movements. The second reason, says Carter, is the big increase in American troops in and around Kandahar.

Maj. Gen. CARTER: We have sufficient force levels now to be able to get after many of the areas that have been sanctuaries for them. And the extent to which they've had freedom of movement has been much reduced. And if you reduce their freedom of movement, that naturally reduces their appetite to stand and fight.

BOWMAN: Taking away their hiding places, their sanctuaries means the Taliban have nowhere to go, except maybe back home. So some fighters are putting down their weapons and picking up a shovel, blending in - which means so far, rather than a decisive engagement, the U.S. coalition is left with a murky, uncertain battlefield. The enemy hasn't been beaten, it's just disappeared.

What's unknown, Carter says, is whether they'll take up arms again next Spring.

Maj. Gen. CARTER: And I think what will be really important in terms of how we judge progress in Kandahar will be what things look like on the first of June next year, which is traditionally when the insurgency comes back and fights again.

BOWMAN: The way to prevent a return to violence, Carter says, is for NATO and Afghan officials to spend the winter building up the local government, bringing in more bureaucrats who can provide basic services and jobs to Kandahar residents and more money for projects.

After all, insurgencies spring from ineffective government, and the Taliban has moved into that void. They offer a paycheck to those who fight or plant bombs. They even have special courts to settle local disputes and shadow governors to oversee it all.

Maj. Gen. CARTER: They recognize now that this is about an argument between the forces of the government and them in terms of what the two parties offer. And it's essentially a political problem. And I think, therefore, they are keen increasingly to show that they will produce better services for the population than the government can produce.

BOWMAN: Carter acknowledges that it will take more time for the Afghan government to improve and win the people's trust. But Carter won't be here to see that. He'll finish up his year of command in about a week and return to London.

As he prepares to leave, he boasts about one accomplishment: He was able to drive for miles along a stretch of highway west of Kandahar city. Here's why that's a big deal: That road has been targeted with roadside bombs and small arms fire, yet Carter was accompanied by a local governor. They drove in SUVs, not in big armored vehicles.

Maj. Gen. CARTER: And that's something that I would not have risked at all. We would undoubtedly have led to catastrophe I suspect if we tried to do it even three weeks ago. And for the governor to be able to do that with his key officials and with the media was a very, very, big moment.

BOWMAN: It was this small step, this simple act - driving down a once dangerous highway with a local leader - that Carter called one of most exciting moments of his time in Afghanistan.

Tom Bowman, NPR news, Kandahar.

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