Conflict and Post Conflict Study
61% of Afghans interviewed feel more negative about NATO forces after military offensive in Marjah
95% believe that more young men have joined the Taliban over the last year
68% believe Taliban will return to Marjah
NATO’s Operation Moshtarak, launched in February 2010 in Helmand province, was the first deployment after the beginning of the much-debated surge of 30,000 additional US troops. It was billed as the largest military operation since the invasion of 2001. The planning for the operation emphasised the needs of the Afghan people, and the importance of winning hearts and minds as part of a classic counter-insurgency operation. However, the reality on the ground did not match the rhetoric.
“Improvements in the size and conduct of military operations, and the weeks of pre-planning before Operation Moshtarak, were a welcome step in increasing the effectiveness of the operations in Southern Afghanistan”, said Norine MacDonald QC, President and Lead Field Researcher for ICOS. “However, these welcome improvements were undermined by a lack of corresponding measures in the political campaign and refugee support. The policy mix prioritised military instruments over the humanitarian, economic and political effort.”
The new report reviews the local perceptions of the operation from more than 400 Afghan men from Marjah, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar interviewed by ICOS in March 2010.
The findings of the report reveal three key “lessons learned” which will be critical to the success of the upcoming offensive in Kandahar: tackling Taliban recruitment; refugee support and aid capacity; and better management of the grassroots political dynamics.
The legitimate grievances of the people of Marjah are being exploited by the Taliban, who use these grievances as a doorway to recruit and radicalise the region’s angry young men, the report states. Of those interviewed, 95% believe more young Afghans have joined the Taliban in the last year. 78% of the respondents were often or always angry, and 45% of those stated they were angry at the NATO occupation, civilian casualties and night raids.
97% of Afghans interviewed said the operation had led to new flows of internally displaced people. Thousands of displaced Afghans were forced to move to overcrowded refugee camps with insufficient food, medical supplies or shelter. Aid agencies were overwhelmed and under-resourced.
Afghans are also very sceptical about NATO’s chances in the war against the Taliban: 67% of those interviewed stated they did not believe NATO and the Afghan government would win against the Taliban, and 14% believed that NATO would “never” win.
“This lack of humanitarian planning has been a propaganda victory for the Taliban, who will try and use the grievances of local Afghans to radicalise and recruit young men,” said Jorrit Kamminga, Director of Policy Research at ICOS.
Another issue causing friction with the local population is the lack of an effective or realistic counter-narcotics strategy. Poppy crop eradication – which took place during the operation – and a new policy of paying poppy farmers to eradicate their crops themselves, undermines the local economy without putting sustainable alternatives in place. Eradicating the poppy crop is opposed by 66% of Afghans interviewed by ICOS.
“Farmers should be sold licences to grow poppies, which would be processed into the medicine morphine in local facilities,” said Kamminga: “A Poppy for Medicine pilot project should be implemented for the fall growing season.”
Despite the serious flaws in the operation, interviewees supported operations to clear the road between Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, and Kabul or to clear Kandahar province of insurgents.
“This demonstrates “an agreement on ends, but not on means,” said MacDonald. “We argue for the adoption of a new counter-insurgency impact equation: Balance any negative impact with a positive impact; and ensure that the positive impact is greater than the negative impact.”
Operation Moshtarak and similar operations in the future provide a perfect propaganda tool for use by the Taliban in their recruitment strategies, unless the conduct of such operations is changed to address legitimate grievances through deploying what this report characterises as “non-violent security instruments” within a “security eco-system” concept. This mandates managing all operations (military, aid and political) with an understanding that an action in one area affects dynamics in another area.
68% of Afghans questioned believe that the Taliban will return to Marjah.
To prevent a repeat of the blowback effect of Operation Moshtarak, NATO and the international community must deploy a series of short- and long-term initiatives in Kandahar -“Dramatic Positive Local Actions” – to address grassroots political dynamics.
To tackle Taliban recruitment, marriage and land allowance schemes should be established to tie young unemployed Afghan men into stable social and economic structures and inoculate them against the attractions of the insurgency.
“Camps in a box” should be set up to provide appropriate services for civilians displaced by the fighting. Aid agencies should be fully integrated into military planning processes, and given the necessary financial support to deal with the displacement of local populations. If necessary, NATO military forces should be tasked with aid for refugees in conflict zones until the aid community can operate safely.
As part of this “Dramatic Positive Local Actions” equation, NATO should engage decisively with grassroots communities on the issue of religious respect and anger related to Afghan civilian casualties caused by NATO military actions. This process should include symbolic cultural and political acts linked to public statements of apology: programs such as restoration of mosques and shrines and Quran distribution schemes. These are intended to demonstrate, in a dramatic grass roots political way, commitment to the Afghan people and to build support for the international presence in what has become a hyper-politicized community.
“NATO and the international community have made mistakes, but their presence in Afghanistan is not a mistake, and neither is the recent surge. The policy mix is not working, and this has to be dramatically renovated in the very short term,” said MacDonald. “Learning lessons from Marjah is critical for the success of the upcoming operation in Kandahar. Urgent steps must be taken to dramatically reshape local relationships, and prevent a repeat of the negative impacts of Operation Moshtarak in Kandahar.“