As the long hot summer wears on in southern Afghanistan, attention turns to Kandahar, the second-largest city and spiritual home of the Taliban. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, is fond of saying: "As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan." He told a congressional hearing last month: "It is my belief that should they [the Taliban] go unchallenged there and in the surrounding areas, they will feel equally unchallenged elsewhere."
The senior Republican on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee agrees. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was in Kandahar on Monday. He told a news conference in Kabul: "The Taliban know that Kandahar is the key to success or failure. ... And if we succeed there, we will succeed in the rest of this struggle."
A long-heralded operation to deprive the Taliban of substantial influence in and around Kandahar is beginning to take shape. Hundreds of members of an elite police unit – the Afghan National Civil Order Police or ANCOP – have begun staffing checkpoints around the city in partnership with international troops. They are replacing ordinary police units, who are being retrained.
Recent visits by CNN correspondents to Kandahar have indicated that many of the ordinary cops are not up to the job. Trainers complain of corruption, illiteracy and a lack of discipline within the police force.
Trouble is, ANCOP can't be everywhere, and by the International Security Assistance Force's own admission, it has been overworked since being established as a distinct force four years ago.
Total ANCOP strength is 5,365 at present, but less than 3,600 are assigned to duty, according to the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan. The force suffers from attrition because it is constantly deployed (most recently in Marjah). NATO admits around 70 ANCOP officers leave the force each week. It has plans to double the current force by spring of next year by making the lives of ANCOP officers more predictable and thereby cutting the rate of attrition. It's just one more challenge in getting Afghan forces to take the place of their international partners.