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    South Asia
     May 7, 2010
Losing Afghan hearts and minds
By Julien Mercille

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan, according to a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) that gives a clear signal of the dangers of the military operation against Kandahar planned for this summer.

Contrary to its stated objectives of protecting the population from insurgents, NATO is actually raising the likelihood that poor Afghans will join the Taliban - not a great report card for General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, whose strategies seem to be backfiring.

The report, entitled Operation Moshtarak: Lessons Learned [1], is based on interviews conducted last month with over 400 Afghan

 

men from Marjah, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar to investigate their views on the military operation to drive out the Taliban, launched in February in Helmand province, and its aftermath.

It corroborates previous assessments, such as one from the Pentagon released last week which concluded that popular support for the insurgency in the Pashtun south had increased over the past few months. Not one of the 92 districts that are deemed key to NATO operations supported the government, whereas the number of those sympathetic to or supporting the insurgency increased to 48 in March, from 33 in December 2009. [2]

There is no doubt Operation Moshtarak has upset Afghans: 61% of those interviewed said they now feel more negative about NATO forces than before the offensive. This plays into the insurgents hands, as 95% of respondents said they believed more young Afghans are now joining the Taliban. In addition, 67% said they do not support a strong NATO-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) presence in their province and 71% said they just wanted foreign troops to leave Afghanistan entirely. Locals don't have much confidence in NATO "clearing and holding" the area, as 59% thought the Taliban would return to Marjah once the dust settled, and in any case, 67% didn't believe NATO and the Afghan security forces could defeat the Taliban.

The anger is easy enough to understand. Whereas aid agencies and human rights groups have estimated the number of civilian killed during Operation Moshtarak at fewer than 50, the great majority of respondents believe the toll to be about 200, or roughly a third of the number of insurgents killed; a "collateral damage" clearly too high to "win hearts and minds" - if such damage can ever be justified at all. Moreover, the operation against Marjah displaced about 30,000 people, many forced into refugee camps nearby with inadequate food, medical services or shelter. Such camps are good recruitment sites for the Taliban.

Locals say the main reason why their young men join the Taliban is for the job or money it provides, even if they don't necessarily share the leaders' ideological convictions. Indeed, the majority of those who join the ranks of the insurgency are often unemployed and disenfranchised. One solution could therefore be to spend more funds on reconstruction and development to generate employment. But this has never been a NATO priority: the US alone has spent US$227 billion on military operations in Afghanistan since 2001, while international donors together have spent less than 10% of that amount on development aid.

To make things worse, NATO seeks to eliminate the drugs industry, which makes up about 30% of the country's total economy, often the best source of income for poor farmers. According to the ICOS report, eradication was opposed by 66% of those interviewed, not a surprising finding given that Helmand province cultivates over half the country's poppies and produces about 60% of its opium, with Marjah dubbed by many to be Helmand's “opium capital”. Even NATO's new policy of paying farmers as an incentive for them to eliminate their own crops undermines the economy because sustainable alternative livelihoods are not offered.

The survey also points to a paradoxical finding: notwithstanding their negative perceptions about NATO, two-thirds of interviewees said foreign troops should clear the Taliban from the road linking Lashkar Gah to Kandahar and Kabul and start an operation against insurgents in Kandahar.

This apparent contradiction can be explained in immediate terms by the fact that locals wish to travel and conduct business more easily. From a broader perspective, it suggests that locals simply dislike both the Taliban and foreign troops. As summarized concisely by a major tribal leader from Kandahar, "Ten percent of the people are with the Taliban, 10% are with the government and 80% of the people are angry at the Taliban, the government and the foreigners."

The roots of the dire situation of insecurity faced by many Afghans were explained by the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who stated. "It was the international community that went to the warlords after the Taliban and brought them back," with appalling consequences up to this day. [3]

Those views reflect those of democratic-minded Afghans such as member of parliament Malalai Joya and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who have been campaigning for years against both the Taliban and the warlords and their NATO backers. Yet, their views have been completely ignored by coalition governments.

Rather, NATO and US forces have specialized in (botched) night raids that kill civilians, including pregnant women as happened in February in Paktia province. McChrystal has increased those Special Operations Forces raids since he became the top commander in Afghanistan, skills he had previously honed as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from 2003 to 2008. Even though civilian deaths from air strikes have declined, those caused by night raids have increased, so much that the UN now estimates they account for half the civilians killed by foreign troops. This has contributed to the 33% increase in civilian deaths last month compared to the same period last year, adding to Afghans' anger. [4]

Finally, 74% of those interviewed by ICOS support negotiations and dialogue with the Taliban, a clear sign that Afghans are tired of war. Bringing Taliban leaders in a political process already dominated by actors whose human rights record is atrocious might not be the ideal solution, but since in practice it is unlikely that NATO will push to have the warlords it allied itself with taken to court, it might be the best political alternative in the short term.

Notes
1. The International Council on Security and Development, formerly known as The Senlis Council, is an international think-tank known for its work in Afghanistan and other conflict zones such as Iraq and Somalia. It is a project of the Network of European Foundations' Mercator Fund. ICOS currently runs three programs: Global Security, Public Security and Public Health and Drug Control.
2. Alissa J Rubin, US report on Afghan war finds few gains in six months. New York Times, April 29, 2010; Gareth Porter, Pentagon map shows wide Taliban zone in the South. Inter Press Service, May 1. 2010.
3. Kathy Gannon, Afghans blame both US, Taliban for insecurity. Associated Press, April 16, 2010.
4. Gareth Porter, Pentagon map belies Taliban's sphere. Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010.

Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He specializes in US foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at jmercille@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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