KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — As American forces step up their campaign to oust the Taliban from Kandahar, Western strategists are growing frustrated that Kabul hasn't given them the support they need to convince skeptical Afghans to back their government.
Despite persistent prodding from Western leaders, Afghan officials haven't filled scores of government posts. Development projects have been slowed by persistent security problems and land disputes, and Western strategists are pushing for results amid growing international discontent with the uncertain direction in the nine-year-old-war.
Afghan officials say their efforts have been stymied by a Taliban assassination campaign that's made it almost impossible to recruit people to work in Kandahar, the country's largest city and the heartland of the Taliban.
Until NATO forces can assure Kandahar residents that they're safe, Afghan officials said, they face a daunting challenge in convincing people to join the Kandahar government.
The challenge facing Army Gen. David Petraeus, the newly named commander of international forces in Afghanistan, is how to establish pockets of security in Kandahar where Afghan leaders can step in quickly and take charge.
"Part of the problem here is that there's a big disconnect between Kabul and the province," said one top Western strategist based in Kandahar who asked not to be identified so he could speak more candidly about the pace of progress. "They have been slow. Everybody knows that they've been slow in providing support."
Western leaders have long emphasized that the pivotal push in Kandahar this summer is more about transforming the government than routing Taliban fighters.
While the provincial governor has been slowly adding key staff, Afghan officials said the Kandahar mayor has only half the people he needs. Offers of higher pay are doing little to entice qualified Afghans to risk their lives to work in Kandahar.
In the first six months of this year, according to recent numbers, Taliban assassins killed an average of one pro-government Afghan a day.
In that time, insurgent assassins across the country killed at least 175 people with links to the Afghan government, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which analyzes security data for aid groups.
Among those killed in recent weeks was the district governor of Arghandab, who was hit by a car bomb while he was driving through downtown Kandahar city.
"If we pay good salaries, if we find people, we will not be able to protect them," said Sibghatullah Khan, one of the Karzai government officials spearheading the civilian push to gain control of Kandahar. "We can't ask them to stay in police or military barracks."
In one recent recruiting push, the government got four applicants for 114 jobs in Kandahar, said Khan. After pleading with local elders for help — and assuring applicants that they wouldn't immediately be sent out to the dangerous districts — they were able to fill about a third of 80 key posts across Kandahar, Khan said.
The halting progress isn't coming fast enough for NATO generals under pressure at home to establish some demonstrable progress by year's end.
"I'm not surprised you get a sense of frustration down there (at the civilian reconstruction headquarters in Kandahar), you get a sense of frustration from me as well," said British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan. "What we need to do is encourage decent, qualified people to come and work down here."
The U.S. military is now making a concerted push to derail the Taliban assassination campaign.
As part of the "rising tide of security," U.S. soldiers have established a new ring of checkpoints around Kandahar city and military police have launched a new effort to train Afghan police best known for taking checkpoint bribes.
Afghan and American forces also have launched a new battle to drive hard-core Taliban fighters out of the Arghandab valley, where modest U.S.-backed development projects have helped establish beachheads of pro-Western allies in the fertile region north of Kandahar.
As U.S.-led forces increase their hold on the province, Taliban insurgents retain a grip on key Kandahar neighborhoods that bump up against new U.S. military bases.
On a recent afternoon, a local shopkeeper chipped chunks off a swiftly melting block of ice at his produce stand within sight of a joint U.S.-Afghan base that was hit earlier this month in a Taliban attack that killed nine people, including three U.S. soldiers.
The U.S.-Afghan base sits on the edge of a valley where neighbors said the Taliban routinely set up snap checkpoints within eyesight of hilltop Afghan checkpost.
"We are caught in the crossfire," Abbas said as he weighed ice for antsy children. "Since they've arrived, security has gotten worse."
Military leaders acknowledge that the battles could get even worse. However, they're aiming to provide enough security so that the Afghan government can offer a credible alternative to Taliban rule.
One centerpiece is supposed to be a campaign to bring more reliable electric power to Kandahar. With Taliban fighters thwarting attempts to improve a key dam project, strategists are turning to temporary generators in an attempt to show Kandahar residents that the government can deliver results.
Quickly setting up a new government in neighboring Helmand province proved to be a major drag on progress in Marjah, the poppy growing region long controlled by the Taliban.
While coalition leaders boasted about plans to bring in a "government-in-a-box" that could swiftly establish control in Marjah after U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan fighters seized control of the area.
After months of faltering progress, Afghan leaders recently removed Marjah's first district governor, Haji Zahir.
His removal was a belated recognition that Zahir, who was reported to have served time in a German prison after stabbing his stepson, was the wrong man for the job.
"He was a perfectly intelligent bloke, but I'm not sure he had the leadership to bind the place together," Carter said. "And, of course, what we needed was a team around him making people think the government was present."
One lesson that Western strategists learned from the failings in Helmand wasn't to create elevated expectations speedy progress — and not to expect too much from Karzai.
"We've learned not to use the term 'government-in-a-box,' for starters," said a second senior Western official based in Kandahar who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the program more openly.
"We're dealing with a state that was a failed state up until 2001 and one of the dynamics of a failed state is the government doesn't work very well," he said. "It's still a tenuous relationship between the national level and the provincial level."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010