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 , 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. 
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
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
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
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. 
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. 
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.
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
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 [email protected]