WASHINGTON - On the ninth anniversary of the United States military
intervention in their country, a report released on Thursday finds that Afghans
remain deeply distrustful and resentful of the impact and intent of foreign
Based on dozens of interviews and focus group sessions in seven provinces in
western, eastern and southern Afghanistan over the past year, the report by the
Open Society Foundations (OSF) found that Afghans tend to blame US-led forces
as much or more than the Taliban for the country's continuing violence and
"This reflects a growing divide between the perceptions of the Western public
and policymakers and those of Afghan citizens about the intentions and
accomplishments of international forces
in Afghanistan," according to the 25-page report, titled "The Trust Deficit:
The Impact of Local Perception on Policy in Afghanistan."
Moreover, policy changes adopted over the past year by US and other foreign
forces aimed at reducing civilian casualties and protecting the civilian
population have not succeeded in reducing local perceptions of Western
indifference or even malevolence.
"Overcoming Afghan resentment toward international forces and the Afghan
government has been a key concern in the new counter-insurgency strategy, and
recent policies have reduced civilian casualties, improved detention
conditions, and increased strategic communications in an attempt to win Afghan
'hearts and minds'," the report said.
Indeed, a United Nations report issued in August found the Taliban and its
allies responsible for 76% of the more than 3,000 civilian casualties
registered in the first six months of this year, while US-led forces were
responsible for only 12% - down from 30% during the same period in 2009.
But "these policy reforms have often been too little, too late", the report
said, noting that the "build up of mistrust and grievances from the past nine
years" will make any Western-backed short- or long-term policy initiatives in
Afghanistan, including possible efforts at reconciliation and re-integration of
Taliban forces, much more difficult.
The report comes amid growing public pessimism here about the outcome of what
has become Washington's longest foreign war in its history.
That pessimism has been fed by a steady flow of reports regarding alleged
high-level corruption on the part of the government of President Hamid Karzai
and his family; ballot-stuffing and other abuses in last month's parliamentary
elections; More recently, there has also been a sharp deterioration in
relations between Washington and the Pakistani military - particularly its
intelligence arm. The US believes the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency
is not only providing the Taliban a safe haven, but is aiding and abetting the
Tensions between Pakistan and the US spiked last week after US helicopters,
purportedly engaged in "hot pursuit" of Taliban forces, briefly crossed the
border and hit a checkpoint on Pakistan's side of the border, killing three
Islamabad immediately shut down one of two major supply routes through its
territory for international forces based in land-locked Afghanistan and,
despite a series of official apologies by the US and North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), has yet to reopen it.
Without Pakistan's full cooperation in denying the Taliban and its affiliates
safe haven - let alone intelligence and material support - most experts here
believe Washington and its NATO allies will find it nearly impossible to
definitively turn the tide in the war in Afghanistan in their favor,
particularly by July 2011, the date when President Barack Obama has pledged to
begin drawing down the 100,000 US troops who are currently deployed there.
The new study also comes as the US military is mounting a major
counter-insurgency drive aimed at weakening and eventually evicting the Taliban
from its traditional stronghold in and around Kandahar, which is also the
heartland of Afghanistan's Pashtun population.
The offensive is aimed at capturing or killing mid- and senior-level Taliban
militants in the area, while enhancing the security of the local civilian
population - a model that US forces used with inconclusive results in the
farming region of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province over much of the past
But the new report raises serious questions about whether that approach can
work, given the deep-seated distrust that has built up about Western forces not
just in Kandahar, but in non-Pashtun areas of the country, as well.
"In the course of this research, the [OSF] found few meaningful differences in
perceptions of international forces, regardless of the ethnicity of the Afghans
interviewed, their level of education, political affiliation, or proximity to
conflict," the study, which was carried out with the collaboration of local
Afghan civil-society organizations, concluded.
While Western policy-makers believe their forces are in Afghanistan to improve
the situation, the report said, Afghans, have an entirely different impression,
based in important part on their experience of the last nine years.
"Incidents of civilian casualties, night raids, wrongful or abusive detentions,
deteriorating security, and the perceived impunity of international forces have
generated negative stereotypes of international forces as violent, abusive, and
sometimes, deliberately malevolent in their conduct and nature," it found.
"Many [of the interviewees] were even suspicious that international forces were
directly or indirectly supporting insurgents," it went on.
"These suspicions, in turn, have fed into broader shifts toward framing
international forces as occupiers, rather than as a benefit to Afghanistan.
Today, each incident of abuse, whether caused by international forces or
insurgents, reinforces these negative perceptions and further undermines any
remaining Afghan trust."
"Though stories about international forces supporting insurgents or planting
IEDs are often dismissed as conspiracy theories or propaganda, they offer a
reality check on just how strained the international community's position is in
Afghanistan," said Erica Gaston, the report's co-author, whose previous work in
Afghanistan helped persuade US commanders to tighten their rules of engagement.
Her views were echoed by Michael Semple, an expert at the Center for Human
Rights at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who has spent much of the
past decade in rural Afghanistan. "This is extremely resonant," he said of the
report's conclusions. "This is the discourse you pick up when you go out and
talk to people in the countryside."
In some cases, he said, elite sectors, including Karzai himself, contribute to
these perceptions. "Karzai personally doesn't like the idea of waging war
against a section of his people. He's very comfortable with the idea that NATO
is fighting the war."
In order to rebuild trust, the report called for a series of measures,
including extending the policy reforms to minimize civilian casualties;
reversing the increased use of night raids as the main tactic for capturing or
killing suspected Taliban fighters; exercising tighter control and
accountability over special operations and non-military forces involved in
night raids; and ensuring greater transparency and responsiveness to
allegations of abuses against Afghans.
The report also urged international forces to exercise greater caution in
undertaking new initiatives to arm, train, or equip local militias and to
reconsider the new US strategy of pushing foreign troops closer to local
inhabitants before they can be "meaningfully protected" from insurgent violence
or collateral damage.
Afghans often blame the presence of international forces for provoking Taliban
attacks in which the local population is caught in the middle, according to the
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.