The news out of Kandahar is pretty awful: the top leadership of the province was killed in an apparent attempt to kill General Austin Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country.  There is not many details, but the WashPost account is suggestive of some key dynamics and challenges.

First, it sounds like the killer was apparently part of the provincial governor’s security team.  Not great.  It does seem like the primary threat in Kandahar to elites are their security teams, as I seem to remember it was also a member of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s security team that killed him.

Second, and, more importantly, the focus is on Abdul Razik the police chief of Kandahar.  Why?  Because (a) the inability to build institutions meant that the US, Canada and the rest of NATO bet on individuals.  That if we had the right individuals in place, we can manage things and even perhaps improve them.  The story focuses on Razik’s own networks and his own capabilities, not that of his office.  That he is hard to replace–because we have relied on individuals.  And, yes, individuals come and go.

Third, the focus is on the police chief, not the governor.

Among those reported killed in the attack inside the governor’s compound
in southern Kandahar province were the country’s top police general, Abdul Raziq, who was seen as the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan.

That says something about how little progress has been made–that it is still very much about who controls force, not who governs.  If progress had been made, the focus would be more on the political side–the assassination of a governor.  If we think about this happening in most other places, wouldn’t we note the political leader first and foremost?

Fourth, um, about Razik, the discussion of his “strengths” reflects some desperation on the part of the outsiders:

Amrulleh Saleh, a former Afghan national intelligence chief, tweeted that Abdul Razik had been “an architect of stability” in Kandahar who had established “deep political networks” in
support of the government. “This is a pan-Afghan loss,” he wrote.
Abdul Razik, a lieutenant general in the Afghan National Police, was a controversial official who had been repeatedly accused of torturing detainees and other abuses during his rise to power in Kandahar. At the same time, he earned a reputation as a ferocious opponent of the Taliban and gained the respect of successive American and NATO military officials in Afghanistan.

Controversial figure?  Indeed.  This points to the biggest challenge facing any outsider hoping to run a successful counter-insurgency effort–local allies.  Do they have similar interests?  Do they behave in ways that alienate local constituencies?  Does one need brutality to win a counter-insurgency?  I am not sure, since this guy was brutal and yet…. is Kandahar a success or a failure? It hasn’t fallen (unlike Kunduz), but it is not a haven of security either.

This one story, again based on initial reports, is just very suggestive about how complex counter-insurgency efforts can be, how difficult they are, and how many tricky tradeoffs are involved.  I am sure the US/NATO forces are mourning the loss of Razik, but maybe they should be wondering why they are so dependent on one guy?