Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Wednesday, 11 August 2010 14:18 UK

Taking on the Taliban in Kandahar

Watch the film in full: Kandahar insurgency still burns

As Nato forces concentrate in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Newsnight's Mark Urban gets exclusive access to the security offensive there and speaks independently to people in the city.

You would be hard pressed to find a more politically sensitive battleground than Kandahar. For a start, it is the great prize in Afghanistan: it was the Taliban capital, it is the power base of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's family, and possession of the city has long had a powerful symbolic importance for the country's dominant Pashtun tribes.

Add to this that the Kandahar area is now the key battleground for President Barack Obama's troop surge, and it is clear how high the stakes are.

In recent months Nato and Afghan authorities have sometimes appeared tongue-tied about the progress of Operation Hamkari, their attempt to secure the place. Contradictory stories have appeared saying it has been shelved, it is entering a higher gear, or it is hopelessly bogged down.

Security drive

After going into the city independently to gauge local feeling before embedding with the military, we get some idea of what is happening.

Security in Kandahar
Nato and the US have 30,000 troops deployed in Helmand and Kandahar

Operation Hamkari has indeed been underway for four months. It involves a series of ambitious initiatives by Nato and it has not been scaled back. But while the security drive is happening, it is less clear that it can keep to schedule or that people in the city have yet registered any positive effect.

The first phase of the operation saw the construction of a ring of checkpoints on major routes around the city. The aim is to protect people within, while attacking some of the insurgent strongholds in surrounding districts.

The second phase started late in July with a military clearing operation in the Arghandab district north of Kandahar. The final part of Operation Hamkari will involve striking to the west in the toughest strongholds of the Taliban, the districts of Zhari and Panjwa'i.

Establish security ring around city of Kandahar
Clear Taliban from Arghandab to the north
Clear Taliban from Zhari and Panjwa'i to the west

While all of this is going on, Afghan and Nato troops are being poured in.

The 504th Military Police battalion, for example, which is responsible for trying to raise the game of Afghan law enforcement in the city centre, is fielding five times as many people as its predecessor.

Meanwhile, two extra Afghan army battalions are in the field in Arghandab and another 10 have been promised for operations in Zhari and Panjwa'i.

Yet travelling into the city, it is apparent that many people have not yet registered any improvement in security.

Indeed many who spoke to us suggested that assassination and intimidation are on the rise - an impression that chimes with the latest United Nations report showing a sharp rise this year in the number of people being killed by insurgents.

'Climate of intimidation'

At the Afghan Canadian Centre we met a class of young women learning English. None wanted her face shown, one of them explaining: "We have many problems if we are seen coming here, we don't want our families to see us here."

They told us that the brief flowering of education and civil society after the Taliban fell has now been replaced by a climate of intimidation.

Maj Gen Nick Carter
We deal in facts, not rumours
Maj Gen Nick Carter

Another man I met told me his brother had been murdered two weeks ago. When I asked whether it was the Taliban he replied: "How do we know who is doing all the killing?"

One person who is quite sure he knows is Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's brother and Kandahar's principal tribal powerbroker. He showed us threatening letters sent to his supporters by the Taliban urging them to get out of the country within five days or face punishment.

Mr Karzai, who is known as "AWK" by Nato and "the Khan" or "chief" by many Kandaharis, is himself a deeply controversial figure. Among the less serious charges against him is that he has channelled lucrative foreign contracts and government positions towards members of his - and the president's - tribe.

The insurgency, meanwhile, burns strongest in two of the tribes widely regarded as being excluded from the Karzai government project. The prospect of a Western drawdown, has, Mr Karzai says, allowed the Taliban to declare imminent victory.

Before Operation Hamkari started, Nato took a long hard look at whether it should define AWK as part of the problem rather than the solution.

"We deal in facts, not rumours," said Maj Gen Nick Carter, the British officer running the Kandahar effort, explaining why the alliance decided to continue cooperating with Mr Karzai.

As chairman of the provincial council, both Mr Karzai and Maj Gen Carter are now trying to push ahead with clearing the districts around the city.

Guerrilla strongholds

The fighting in Arghandab has already cost many casualties - American and Afghan.

Locator map

One reporter recently embedded with troops there for two weeks told me: "Counter insurgency is impossible there - the local people have cleared out and the soldiers get hit almost as soon as they leave the base."

Tough it may be, but the experience there - largely one of improvised bombs and sniping - does not seem to have deterred Nato from planning its assault in the guerrilla strongholds west of the city.

Maj Gen Carter says it is quite likely that the enemy will make a stand in Zhari and Panjwa'i, so many thousands of troops will be needed for the operation. He is non-committal about when this hardest phase of Operation Hamkari will start or indeed end.

However Lt Gen Maji Shir Zarzai, commander of the Afghan National Army's Kandahar Corps, told me that he hopes it will be complete by the end of 2010.

So, the operation to secure the city continues and it involves a combined total of Western and Afghan forces of anything up to 50,000. But is it going to work?

Maj Gen Carter declares himself pleased with early progress but insists it is too early to look for a pronounced change in the security picture.

In Kandahar so much depends on Afghan leadership: of the security forces, at the official level, and at the unofficial level of tribal power brokers.

Mr Karzai's tribe must somehow make its peace with those that support the Taliban, and official structures must find ways to share out government largesse more fairly.

Warring factions

Meeting a police lieutenant, who I will call Amanullah, at a station in the city centre, I got some inkling of how far those who wish to bring security still have to go. Amanullah is from a tribe in Panjwa'i that staunchly supports the Taliban.

On camera he repeated familiar phrases about his mission to make the city safe. When filming stopped, he opened up in earnest.

"Of 132 people in my family - brothers, cousins and so on," he told me, "I am the only one with any connection to the state."

Where had this left him? "I have not been able to go home for four years," he replied.

Amanullah is hoping to arrange a meeting with his parents on neutral ground away from Panjwa'i.

Talking to him, I was reminded of the gulf between Kandahar's warring factions that must still be bridged. The ongoing operations may make a start possible, even the most optimistic residents know progress could be slow.

Watch Mark Urban's film in full on Wednesday 11 August 2010 at 2230 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

Afghan toll shows troops' dilemma
10 Aug 10 |  South Asia
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