WASHINGTON - The United States military has now officially backtracked from its
earlier suggestion that it would seek the consent of local shuras, or
consultative conferences with those elders, to carry out the military
occupation of Kandahar city and nearby districts - contradicting a pledge by
Afghan President Hamid Karzai not to carry out the operation without such
Lieutenant Colonel Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for General Stanley McChrystal,
the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops in
Afghanistan, told Inter Press Service on Tuesday that local tribal elders in
Kandahar could "shape the conditions" under which the influx of foreign troops
operated during the operation, but would not determine
whether or where NATO troops would be deployed in and around the city.
Asked whether the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was committed
to getting local approval before introducing more troops into Kandahar and
surrounding districts, the McChrystal spokesman said, "We're not talking about
something as simple as a referendum."
At a March 29 briefing in Kabul on plans for the Kandahar operation, however,
an unnamed senior US military official told reporters that one of the elements
of the strategy for gaining control over the Taliban stronghold was to "shura
our way to success" - referring to the Islamic concept of consultative bodies.
In those conferences with local tribal elders, the officials said, "The people
have to ask for the operation ... We're going to have to have a situation where
they invite us in."
Those statements clearly suggested the intention to get the support of local
tribal elders before going ahead with the large-scale military operation
scheduled to begin in June.
That is what Karzai said to a shura of between 1,000 and 2,000 Kandahar
province tribal elders on April 4. Karzai said NATO's Kandahar operation would
not be carried out until the elders themselves were ready to support it,
according to a number of press reports.
According to the report by RTA, Afghanistan's state television service, Karzai
actually said, "I know you are worried about this operation," before asking
their opinion. He also said that the shuras to be organized at the
district level were for the purpose of "getting approval and deciding" on the
operation, according to the RTA report.
And the assembled elders made it known that they didn't want the operation.
That was clearly not what McChrystal, who was sitting behind Karzai at the shura,
wanted to hear.
McChrystal's deputy chief of staff, Major General William Mayville, and
spokesman Sholtis both sought to minimize the damage from the incident.
Mayville asserted that Karzai was "on board" with the Kandahar offensive,
adding, "We would not have had this shura if he wasn't convinced this is
the right stuff."
Sholtis suggested that Karzai had only "made it clear that he would involve
local leaders in the decision-making process".
Sholtis acknowledged that "nobody wants a counter-insurgency fought in their
backyard", but claimed that the elders who spoke at the Kandahar shura had
"made it clear that Kandahar also suffered from an unwanted Taliban presence".
Sholtis also said the three elders who had expressed concerns about the
operation had been supported by "probably about a third of the more than 1,000
But published accounts of the meeting show that the elders were not calling for
expelling the Taliban from the city and its environs. When Karzai asked the
assembled elders whether they were "happy or unhappy for the operation to be
carried out", they shouted loudly, "We are not happy," the Sunday Times of
As reported by Agence France-Presse, when Karzai asked, "Are you worried?" the
elders shouted back, "Yes we are!"
According to the RTA account, one elder interrupted Karzai to say, "Who are the
Taliban, but my son and another's nephew? The problem is actually these people
who are in power, in particular the tribal elders and those who have power in
And in a revealing response, Karzai said, "Absolutely, you are right ..."
Some of the elders told CNN's Atia Abawi they preferred to negotiate with the
Taliban rather than confront them in a military offensive.
McChrystal and other officials in the ISAF command appear to have hoped that
the threat of a major influx of US troops in and around Kandahar city would
compel such local leaders and tribal elders to persuade Taliban troops to leave
their district. Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post
reported on March 21 that US officials had been telling them they had to
"improve governance, address corruption and eject the Taliban" or face
"expanding military operations".
McChrystal and ISAF base that calculation on a broader US-NATO assumption about
the nature of the Taliban movement and its base of popular support in Kandahar
and southwestern Afghanistan in general.
The British regional coordinator for southern Afghanistan, Nicholas Kay, told
Asia Times Online correspondent Syed Saleem Shahzad in January 2007 that a
majority of the population of southwestern Afghanistan supported the Taliban.
But Kay said that 80% were Taliban or supporters only because they were
"disgruntled by government inefficiencies and corruption" and were therefore
Only 20% of the Taliban and their supporters were "ideologically committed" to
the cause, Kay told Shahzad. 
Kay's view formed the basis for the Barack Obama administration's optimistic
strategy of "turning" the supposedly reconcilable 80% of the Taliban. That
theory failed, however, to consider a key political dynamic in southern
Afghanistan: the Taliban exploitation of the government's opium eradication
policy, which systematically favored wealthy landowners - who were allowed to
avoid destruction in return for a bribe - and fell entirely on the poor.
As early as spring 2006, tribal elders in Kandahar province were supporting the
Taliban in return for the insurgents providing protection against government
destruction of opium fields, as the well-informed International Council on
Security and Development reported in April 2006.
Journalist Gretchen Peters found the same alliance between the Taliban and
opium farmers against opium eradication in Helmand province in 2007. It was
neither "ideology" nor mere anger about government corruption that was binding
the rural population to the Taliban but something far more tangible.
The big April 4 shura in Kandahar revealed a chasm between the
prevailing US view of soft support for the Taliban and the views of both Karzai
and the tribal elders themselves. As a result there will be no empowering of
district shuras to decide whether or not to invite US and Canadian
troops to confront the Taliban.
But McChrystal must now worry about how the Kandahar campaign can succeed in
the face of opposition from both local leaders and Karzai.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.