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AT WAR: Kandahar Offensive To Begin In June

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We are blogging the latest news about America's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Email us at AfPak [at] huffingtonpost.com. Follow Nico on Twitter; follow Nicholas on Twitter. See archives of 'At War' here.

With reporting by Faiz Lalani.

U.S. plans to push Taliban out before Ramadan in Kandahar. U.S. troops hope to end their offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar by August, before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, senior military officials told Reuters on conditions of anonymity. Operation Omid, as the offensive is known, will begin in June. After August, the offensive will shift to a "secure and deliver government" phase, which will last until mid-October.

More details from the AP:

Until the start of major military operations, U.S. troops are working on securing transit routes and persuading the leaders of districts surrounding Kandahar to cooperate with NATO forces.

As the Taliban's governing capital prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Kandahar remains the spiritual heartland of the insurgency and a stubborn holdout in NATO's efforts to transfer control to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

5:30 PM ET -- A teacher in Kabul on Obama's visit. Marilyn Angelucci, a professor at the American University of Afghanistan, emailed the following thoughts after President Obama's visit to the country this weekend.

Today when I asked my class about current events they all were so surprised at the unannounced visit of Pres. Barack Obama. The opinion in Kabul of Obama is positive I think mainly because of the Muslim connection. My class gave me a brief report about the message that Obama gave Karzai and that was basically that he wasn't living up to his promise. It has been three months and he had three months to clean up the place. Nobody things that is possible or that it will improve. The basic atmosphere here is that the situation is the same and things are moving forward very slowly.

The thing that shocks me the most is how negative even the young people are about the increase of international forces and their new military advancements. Apparently there have been many more terrorists attacks especially in Kandahar that have not been publicized, especially during the New Year time which was last week. For the Afghans the horror of having their friends and relatives killed out weights the good that may come in the future. There is still a great deal of animosity towards the foreigners especially the Americans. I try to explain all the investment that the US has made especially in schools and hospitals and the like but they don't see it. To the young people we are interfering in their internal affairs and this is not our business. Only a small few sincerely appreciate what we are doing for Afghanistan.

5:00 PM ET -- Kabul fears U.S. plans to withdraw may leave Pakistan with considerable influence. Time's Tim McGirk thinks that there may be more than meets the eye to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's offer to join the peace process and to serve as an interlocutor between the Taliban and Kabul. Hekmatyar, who has a militia of 2,000 to 3,000 fighters, joined the Taliban insurgency against the NATO invasion after 2001. But of late, he has reached out to Karzai's government and has even showed flexibility in his demands for NATO's withdrawal. According to McGirk, the pervasive hand of the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI, is at play. Hekmatyar "maintains houses for his family in Peshawar and Islamabad, and recruits his fighters from Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar, all under the watchful eye of the ISI." So, in all likelihood, he has received a nod from the Pakistanis, who want to extend their influence over peace negotiations, and want to prove to Washington that "reconciliation between Karzai and the insurgents can succeed, but only if Pakistan makes it happen." Kabul now fears that America--seeking to withdraw as soon as possible--may leave Afghanistan firmly back in Pakistan's sphere of influence.

4:20 PM ET -- 90 percent of suicide bombers in Pakistan are between 12-18 years of age. Kalsoom Lakhani, writing in Foreign Policy, notes the disquieting reality that about 90 percent of suicide bombers in Pakistan are between the ages of 12-18. On Sunday, The Washington Post profiled a reform school for former child fighters and trained suicide bombers in the Swat Valley. The army-sponsored school, the first of its kind in the country, aims to de-radicalize the 86 boys who board at the school, teaching the children "that Islam favors democracy over suicide."

More resources need to be poured into rehabilitation programs for Pakistan's child soldiers, argues Lakhani. She points to efforts in Sri Lanka, where "the government established numerous transit centers as part of a complex program to rehabilitate former child soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam."

4:00 PM ET -- Innocent Afghans will continue to die despite COIN. Michael Cohen at democracyarsenal.org isn't surprised that, as The New York Times reports, civilian casualties remain high. He argues that while the U.S. must try to protect civilians, no counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine or directive from a general will prevent soldiers from using lethal force to protect themselves.

From democracyarsenal.org:

For all of the lovely sentiments about protecting civilians in Afghanistan the simple reality is that we have chosen to place furthering our national interests above protecting the lives of ordinary Afghans; the loss of civilian life while regrettable is a direct result of that decision. I suppose this is defensible - certainly countries that go to war do it all the time. But let's at least be honest about why we're there and the resulting effect on innocent civilians.

3:00 PM ET -- Gates and Clinton express concern over Taliban reconciliation process. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed disagreement with Kabul's efforts to reach out to the Taliban, reports Dawn. In testimony to a Senate panel over the weekend, Gates said that it was "probably early" for Kabul to see reconciliation. Clinton also told the panel that she was "particularly concerned about the reintegration, reconciliation plans that the Karzai government has undertaken." Gates and Clinton believed that reconciliation with the Taliban should only begin once the additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrive in Afghanistan, arguing that it was important for Kabul and NATO to negotiate from a position of strength. Washington's position on reconciliation may also explain why it reacted differently than Kabul to the arrest of Mullah Baradar, writes Dawn's correspondent. Gates acknowledged that the arrests put more pressure on the Taliban and that the arrest boded well for NATO and Afghan military operations in the future.

2:45 PM ET -- India marginalized in Afghanistan, delays arms deals with the U.S.. Indian officials fear "that Pakistan is gaining the upper hand in a "proxy war" in Afghanistan," as the two nuclear-armed rivals compete for influence in Afghanistan, reports Reuters. After being snubbed at the London conference, and noting Pakistan's strategic coup at last week's Washington dialogue with the Obama administration, India believes that it is being marginalized in Afghanistan. The Indian government has spent $1.3 billion in aid money to expand its clout in the country, but now, as one former Indian diplomat put it, New Delhi feels "a genuine sense of disappointment" with the United States' increased reliance on Pakistan.

Tensions between Washington and New Delhi over Afghanistan and Pakistan have led to delays in U.S. weapons and industrial sales to India.

According to Reuters:

In a front page story, the Indian Express warned that the U.S. companies could fail in their bids for a $10 billion contract for 126 fighter aircraft -- one of the world's biggest arms contracts -- if aircraft sales went ahead with Pakistan.

Washington has been irked by India's parliament stalling a bill limiting nuclear firms' liability for industrial accidents, delaying entry of U.S. firms into a $150 billion market.

2:30 PM ET -- Pakistan continues military operations in tribal areas. Pakistani troops killed 22 Taliban insurgents in Orakzai, a tribal region near the Afghan border, after insurgents attacked an army base, reports The Associated Press. For the past week, the Pakistani military has been fighting in the region. It claims to have killed more than 100 suspected militants. The new offensive in Orakzai follows the completion of offensives in the southern tribal areas of South Waziristan and Bajaur. Militants who escaped fighting in the south are thought to have fled to Orakzai.

Sim Tack of The Geopolitical and Conflict Report writes "[w]hile Pakistani troops seem extremely able to wrestle these areas from the Taliban, the question remains whether the necessary Counter Insurgency follow-up will enable Pakistan to maintain control of these regions in the future and prevent a return of terrorism and insurgency."

2:15 PM ET -- Why did Obama go to Kabul? Daniel Stone of Newsweek believes that the reason why President Obama made a surprise visit to Kabul was to make sure that the Afghan government continues to battle corruption and reduce violence. Obama needs the Afghan government to make progress on these two issues if his scheduled withdrawal for next year is to occur. But recent reports about rampant corruption in government and the Afghan security forces' lack of preparation has led Obama to show up at Karzai's front door to show Afghan officials that he is serious. "For Obama, there are few better ways to show you're serious than showing up at someone's door," writes Stone.

1:30 PM ET -- On Afghanistan, President receives high marks. President Obama received some of his highest marks for his administration's handling of the war in Afghanistan, according to a new Washington Post poll. Of those polled, 53 percent approved of the president's conduct of the war, while 35 percent disapproved. Much of the support is bipartisan, with 37 percent of Republicans also expressing a positive opinion of the war.

Democrats broadly approve - 69 percent approve to 21 percent disapprove - though that overall positive masks far higher ratings among conservative and moderate Democrats (75 percent approve) than among liberals (58 percent).

11:00 AM ET -- Obama admin struggles with legal questions in war on terror. A debate is raging between lawyers in the Obama administration, according to The New York Times. The debate--painted as a struggle between Pentagon and State Department legal teams--brings to the the front the question of who exactly it is that U.S. is at war with. The questions of who may be detained without trial as a wartime prisoner, and who can be targeted by drone strikes, are crucial to how the Obama administration will fight terrorism around the world--including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. While the current administration vowed to reverse Bush-era anti-terrorism practices, the administration has largely adopted the same framework. As John B. Bellinger III, a Bush State Department lawyer put it, "the change in law has been largely cosmetic. And of course there has been no change in outcome."

The Obama administration has, however, delineated the kinds of suspects it can and cannot detain without trial: Obama's lawyers told a federal judge that "the president could detain without trial only people who were part of Al Qaeda or its affiliates, or their 'substantial" supporters.'" But the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Pentagon have yet to adopt a consensus on the issue of presidential war powers. Some continue to push for an expansive definition of war powers, which has allowed the administration to win Guantanamo detainee lawsuits, but political appointees assert that the laws of war--the Geneva convention, in particular--must be respected.

10:30 AM ET -- In Kandahar, the insurgency intensifies. Before an additional 30,000 U.S. troops have even been deployed in Kandahar province, a battlefield has already emerged, reports The New York Times. Kandahar, which is the heart of the Taliban insurgency, is reportedly "paralyzed by fear" -- a city where "insurgents boldly walk the streets, visit shops and even press people into keeping guns and other supplies in their houses for them in preparation for urban warfare." Unpopular and allegedly corrupt local government officials have little influence in the area, as they are largely confined behind high blast walls and live in fear of assassination.

In Kandahar, NATO officials hope to mimic the military offensive in neighboring Marjah, but on a larger scale. The purpose of the offensive in Kandahar--as in Marjah--is to clear the Taliban insurgency and to build local support for the Afghan government and foreign troops. However, mistrust of the Karzai administration and NATO troops runs deep.

From The New York Times:

"The first thing Afghans fear is the coming of more foreign troops, and the second thing they fear is the empowering of the current leadership and administration," said Shahabuddin Akhunzada, a tribal elder from Kandahar city. His Eshaqzai tribe has complained of repeated arrests and political exclusion. The West's acceptance of Mr. Karzai's re-election despite widespread fraud was the last straw, he said.

10:00 AM ET -- House committee investigates allegations that U.S. contractors are paying off the Taliban. The Washington Post reports that U.S. government money may be ending up in the hands of the Taliban. Congress is looking to the Defense Department's $2.16 billion contract with Host Nation Trucking (HNT), and is investigating "serious allegations . . . that private security providers for U.S. transportation contractors in Afghanistan are regularly paying local warlords and the Taliban for security." The national security subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that HNT and its subcontractors were paying protection payments. It plans to release a report and to hold hearings on the matter.