KABUL, Afghanistan — It is being called Operation Omid.
The word omid means "hope" in Afghanistan’s Dari language. But, judging by the reaction of local residents, the coming U.S.-led military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar could not be more inappropriately named.
In Kandahar, residents like Abdul Salaam, a farmer, feel more a sense of dread than hope about a military operation that is being billed as one of the largest in the war to date.
“Operation Omid will bring more insecurity, instead of peace,” said Salaam, who lives in the Maiwand district of Kandahar Province. “We have just seen that the opposition has accelerated its attacks. There are more and more explosions in the province. You cannot bring peace through war.”
Operation Omid will not be fully underway until early summer, according to the U.S. military. The exact size of the force to be deployed is not yet clear, but it is expected to swallow a good portion of the 30,000 additional troops being sent to Afghanistan this year.
The operation will center on two districts — Arghandab and Zheray — rather than on the city itself. Fighting in a major population center, moreover one that is home to some of Islam’s most cherished relics, such as the cloak of the Prophet, would go against the hearts and minds strategy that has been a central tenet of the new U.S. strategy.
The Taliban seem eager to get things started.
Over the past week, a series of suicide explosions have rocked the city center. This, along with the much-publicized shooting of a civilian bus by U.S. troops, has given Kandaharis a taste of the approaching conflict. They do not seem to relish the prospect.
The U.S. military has been talking of Kandahar ever since they declared success in Marjah, a dusty patch of desert in neighboring Helmand Province. Once the Afghan flag was raised over the Marjah district center in early March, Kandahar became the focal point of the stepped-up battle against the Taliban.
The choice of target was not coincidental: Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, is the spiritual home of the Taliban, the birthplace of the movement that took over most of the country in the mid to late ‘90s.
The city is not under Taliban control — the government, in the person of Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council, dominates the center. This is one reason that the fighting will be spread out to the districts surrounding the center.
Observers say that this will prompt the Taliban to adopt their usual tactics — melting away until the foreign forces retreat, then flooding back into the area.
“The armed opposition is experienced in guerrilla warfare,” said Bismillah Afghanmal, a senator from Kandahar. “They know when and where to fight, and they know very well how to flee the area that is the focus of the operation. Omid will not bring good results.”
Some of the fighters are moving into more remote districts, but a good number are heading for the city, where they appear ready to carry out regular acts of “asymmetrical warfare” — suicide bombings, the planting of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and other measures designed to spread terror.
As a result, the situation in Kandahar city is deteriorating rapidly, according to author Alex Strick van Linschoten, who has been living in the southern capital for more than two years conducting research on the Taliban.
“We are running out of ways to say how bad things are,” he said. “There is a general feeling of paranoia and fear — fear of what’s going to happen tomorrow, of what the future will bring. No one wants to be in Kandahar. Everyone is trying to sell up and get out.”
The panic was heightened over the past week week, when a double suicide bombing on April 15 killed at least 10 people and injured dozens of others. The first explosion occurred outside Noor Jehan, a hotel popular with the international press, while a second, larger blast followed it hours later, when a vehicle crammed with explosives penetrated the outer defenses of a compound housing foreign contractors.
This is having the desired effect of intimidating the local population.
“The Taliban are signaling to the foreign forces that they have the power to answer any attack,” said Abdul Salaam. “They are trying to show that they have not been weakened by the Marjah operation.”
Nevertheless, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has assured the Afghan people that the U.S. forces would “absolutely secure Kandahar.”
In a press conference in March, McChrystal outlined the military’s plans in broad strokes. Rather than beginning the operation with a Marjah-style bang, the Kandahar “process” will be more subtle, he indicated.
“There won’t be a D-Day that is climactic,” said McChrystal. “It will be a rising tide of security as it comes.”
But so far the tide seems to be going out.
“The Taliban are prepared for this operation,” said Felix Kuehn, who along with van Linschoten co-edited an autobiography of Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who spent nearly four years in Guantanamo and now lives under virtual house arrest in Kabul.
Kuehn has also spent the better part of two years in Kandahar.
“It will be close to impossible to stop their attacks," he said. The intelligence required is simply not available. The local population does not trust the foreign forces, and knows that they will not be safe if they cooperate.”
In Marjah, the Taliban has carried out brutal retribution against residents who are seen to assist the government or the foreign forces. Residents tell of people being dragged out of their houses at night, hanged or beheaded, their bodies left as a warning to others.
In addition to ordinary Kandaharis, added Kuehn, the business community is also being asked to provide goods and services to the insurgency.
“Businessmen are being pressured to team up with the Taliban,” he said. “They are told, 'It is for your own good. You know in the end we will be in control, so it is best to be on our side now.'”
Few are willing to bet their livelihoods — and their lives — on the success of the foreign forces, said both Kuehn and van Linschoten.
Gaining the trust and support of the local population is vital for McChrystal’s much-touted counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN. But it will be an uphill battle to win the hearts and minds of Kandaharis, given the current situation.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised local elders that the operation will not take place without their consent.
In a shura, or council, with tribal elders in Kandahar on April 4, Karzai asked those assembled whether they wanted the operation. They assured him they did not. According to a journalist who was present at the shura, the mood of the gathering was openly hostile, and Karzai’s neighbors on the podium — McChrystal and Mark Sedwill, the Senior NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Relations between the local population and the United States worsened still further on April 12, when U.S. troops opened fire on a passenger bus near a Kandahar checkpoint, killing four and injuring 18. The incident sparked violent anti-American protests, as hundreds of demonstrators poured out onto the streets, blocking roads and shouting “Death to the infidels!”
A week later, the anger is still smoldering.
“All the people on that bus were innocent passengers,” said Haji Mohammad Daud, a resident of the Karez Bazaar area of Kandahar city. “What will the families of the victims think?”
Relatives of civilian victims often end up joining the insurgency, he added.
“The opposition uses cases like this as a propaganda tool against the government; they tell people that foreign forces are not here to help — they have come to kill you.”
The U.S. military apologized for the incident, calling it “a tragic loss of life,” but McChrystal appealed for understanding.
“We really ask a lot of our young service people out on checkpoints because there is danger, they’re asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations,” The New York Times quoted him as saying.
Several hours after the bus shooting, insurgents attacked the headquarters of Kandahar’s intelligence service. The attackers were the only ones to die, but four officials and five civilians were wounded, further raising anxieties in the city.
Against this backdrop of fear and turmoil, prospects for success are looking dim to those on the ground in Kandahar.
“The foreign forces will never have the knowledge and control they need to secure the city,” said van Linschoten. “The Taliban are already there, and can do whatever they want. Short of erecting barbed wire barriers and total ID check, like Baghdad in Year Zero, they cannot do anything. It is a recipe for disaster.”
Ahmad Nadeem, a freelance journalist from Kandahar, contributed to this report from Kandahar.