Afghanistan Report


Afghanistan: The Relationship Gap (July 2010)

Afghanistan: The Relationship Gap Download the report

Press Release

As the war in Afghanistan enters another summer of increasing violence, the international community is focusing its attention on Kandahar province, the spiritual and political heartland of the Taliban insurgency. At the same time, there is growing pressure for a withdrawal among the public in the member countries of the NATO-ISAF coalition is growing.

To assess the attitude of the Afghan people towards key issues, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) interviewed 552 Afghan men across Kandahar and Helmand provinces in June 2010.

Security Outlook
The clearest lesson of the 9/11 attacks was that global security cannot be disentangled from security in the world‟s ungoverned spaces, from Afghanistan to Somalia. The lack of international interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 allowed the Taliban to rise, and created the space for Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. International actors must take this lesson as its bottom line – Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups cannot be allowed a safe haven in Afghanistan, regardless of its political terrain.

Similarly the Taliban and its affiliates must be prevented from fomenting chaos in other neighbouring states, particularly in Central Asia.1 If either of these scenarios comes to pass, the international community will have failed in Afghanistan – an outcome which would raise serious questions about the very future of NATO and the international order.

Concerns Regarding Future Fidelity of Afghan Government
The international community needs to leave behind an Afghanistan which shares and is aligned with its security concerns. It is now well-established that building up the capacity of the Afghan state and security forces is the only realistic way to permit a NATO withdrawal, but a stable Kabul government and a well equipped Afghan army are not sufficient.

The international community needs a guarantee of fidelity from both the Afghan government, and the Afghan people, that they will not tolerate Al Qaeda or other hostile groups to operate from Afghanistan‟s territory. Currently the support and alliance of the Afghan government is not assured. President Karzai, fearing a rapid withdrawal of NATO-ISAF troops, is already reaching out to other states – Pakistan, Iran, and China, amongst them. We could be confronted with a situation where the international community will have invested an enormous military, financial and political effort into an ally that is not entirely reliable and may not entirely share our determination to defeat Al Qaeda. Relying solely on the Afghan government as an ally is not sufficient.

Good Relationship with Afghan People Necessary
The Afghan people must be committed to and aligned with the security goals of the international coalition. If there is broad popular support for Taliban and Al Qaeda, the Kabul government will find itself on a collision course with its own citizens. It is, therefore, essential to build a sustainable grassroots political relationship with the Afghan people.

Bad News: Struggling to Secure Popular Support in Southern Afghanistan
ICOS field research reveals a relationship gap between NATO-ISAF and the Afghan communities they are intended to protect. For instance 75% of interviewees believe that foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions; 74% believe that working with foreign forces is wrong; and 68% believe that NATO-ISAF does not protect them. 55% of interviewees believe that the international community is in Afghanistan for its own benefit, to destroy or occupy the country, or to destroy Islam.

These results are troubling, and demonstrate the mistrust and resentment felt towards the international presence in Afghanistan. Of those interviewed, 70% believe that recent military actions in their area were bad for the Afghan people, whilst 59% opposed further operations in Kandahar. According to interviewees, the Afghan government is also responsible by failing to provide good governance. 70% of respondents believe that local officials make money from drug trafficking, and an astonishing 64% state that government administrators in their area were connected to the Taliban insurgency.

These problems have contributed to growing support for the Taliban, with 65% of respondents calling for Mullah Omar to join the Afghan government. Interviewees also believe that there are strong links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. 80% stated that if the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda would return.

Good News: Positive Attitudes an Opportunity for the International Community
However, field research also reveals some good news and opportunities for the international community. A majority (55%) of Afghans interviewed believe that NATO and the Afghan government are winning the war, demonstrating that the battle for perceptions is still open. Despite the 2009 presidential elections, which were marked by fraud, 40% of Afghan respondents stated that democracy was important to them, and 72% would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban.

There is some progress in women´s rights, with 57% of interviewees supporting girls education. The field research also reveals that respondents have strong social and economic aspirations – the most popular uses for $5000USD would be establishing or expanding a business, and marriage.

The interviews also indicate that negativity is not directed solely against the international coalition, but also to other outside parties. 62% of the interviewees believe Pakistan played a negative role in their country and 56% felt negative about Iran‟s influence in Afghanistan. This presents an opportunity for the coalition to differentiate itself from other actors through being trustworthy and genuinely concerned for the welfare of the Afghan people. It also underscores the need for a truly regional strategy for Afghanistan, one that involves neighbouring states as well as Western countries.

Interesting News: Social and Cultural Mapping
84% of Afghans interviewed identify themselves as Muslims first and foremost. However, 32% identify themselves as Afghan – this is evidence of a growing national consciousness, which was far less visible under the Taliban rule. Another social shift can be identified in gradually loosening family structures. 56% of respondents said that their families exercised control over them, but 32% said that their families only had influence over their decisions. This may indicate a shifting social environment and a gradual decline of traditional family structures.

The Afghan government must be stable and must that ensure Al Qaeda and allied groups will not be able to use Afghanistan to plot and launch attacks. Working solely with the Afghan government is not sufficient to assure our security interests: in addition, the West must reach out to the Afghan people through a sustainable grassroots political campaign. The research illustrates that currently many Afghans are suspicious or hostile towards foreign forces. This gulf of trust enables conspiracy theories and Taliban propaganda to flourish, and undermines the core objectives of the international presence.

Closing this relationship gap and reducing Taliban support will require the international community to communicate its message more effectively in three key ways – explaining why we are there, what we can bring which the Taliban cannot, and building a lasting alliance with the next generation. To date, our efforts in creating this type of grassroots political campaign have been ineffective, leaving a vacuum the Taliban have filled.

We must know the Afghan people better and explain ourselves better. The international community does not understand or meet the basic needs of ordinary Afghans, and they in turn do not understand the reasons for our presence. This must be addressed to reduce mutual suspicions. Addressing the increasingly chronic challenges of humanitarian and development assistance, as well as expressing the international community‟s respect for Afghan religion and culture, are necessary to build effective positive and lasting relationships.

We must win the narrative by making a clear case that the Afghan people have a better future by aligning themselves with the International coalition and its security concerns, rather than with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Taliban and Al Qaeda cannot bring prosperity or freedom. The international community, despite its shortcomings, presents a better future for Afghans and their families.

We must also empower NextGenAfg, the next generation of Afghans, by providing social, economic and political opportunities. This will allow them to lead the country out of the current cycle of violence, and will reduce the current pool of potential Taliban recruits.

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