16 July 2010
74% of Afghans interviewed believe that working with international forces is wrong
68% do not believe NATO-ISAF protects them
65% call for Mullah Omar and the Taliban to join the Afghan government
80% of Afghans believe Al Qaeda will return under Taliban control
KABUL – Field research of the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) shows that the international community is experiencing severe difficulties in the crucial battle to win over the hearts and minds of the local population in southern Afghanistan.
The ICOS report assessed local perception through extensive interviews of over 500 Afghan men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, the scene of some of the war’s most intense fighting.
The Bad News
“There is a serious “relationship gap” between the international community and the Afghan communities we intend to assist and protect,” said Norine MacDonald QC, President and Lead Field Researcher of ICOS. “The international community is failing to effectively meet the needs of the local population or understand their world view. We are also failing to explain ourselves or our objectives to the Afghan people. This provides clear opportunities for Taliban and Al Qaeda propaganda against the West and has resulted in high levels of negative attitudes towards our troops on the ground.”
“70% of the Afghan men we interviewed felt that the military operations in their area were bad for the Afghan people. 55% believe that NATO-ISAF are in Afghanistan only for their own benefit, to destroy or occupy the country, or to destroy Islam,” said MacDonald. “Further demonstrating this negative viewpoint, 75% of interviewees stated that they believe foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions, 68% believe that NATO forces do not protect the local population”.
MacDonald continued: “70% of the Afghans we interviewed stated that recent military actions in their area were wrong, and 59% oppose a new military offensive being built up by NATO forces in Kandahar. Military operations by their very nature have a negative impact on the community. The military operations have to be supported by aid, development and political efforts that balance out the negative impact with positive impacts.”
Mr Jorrit Kamminga, Director of Policy Research of ICOS adds: “61% of the interviewed Afghans believe that more Afghans are joining the Taliban compared to the year before. 74% believe that working with the international forces is wrong.” Kamminga noted issues also arise with local government. “70% of respondents mentioned they believe government officials in their area made money from drug trafficking. Disturbingly, 64% also thought that government administrators were linked to the Taliban.”
A majority of those interviewed believe more than one third of Afghans support the Taliban and Al Qaeda. 65% of interviewees said that Mullah Omar and the Taliban should again join the government.
However, according to the Afghans interviewed, the return of the Taliban may have an important negative side effect: 80% believe Al Qaeda will return if the Taliban regain control over Afghanistan.
The Good News
The research also revealed some successes – a slim 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. 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 also progress in the interviewees’ opinion on women’s rights, with 57% of interviewees supporting girls’ education.
Alignment of Local Population with International Security Interests Necessary
Mrs. MacDonald outlined the larger problem, “The West needs to leave behind an Afghanistan which shares and is aligned with the international community’s security concerns. It is well-understood that building up the capacity of the Afghan state and security forces is the only realistic way to permit a NATO/ISAF withdrawal, but a stable Kabul government and a well equipped Afghan army are not sufficient. The West needs a relationship of fidelity: by both the Afghan government – and the Afghan people – that they will not tolerate Al Qaeda or others hostile to the west to operate in or from Afghanistan. Our best security lies in an enduring relationship based on common interests with the Afghan people themselves.”
The Relationship Gap
Mr Kamminga noted the field research clearly demonstrates a relationship gap between international forces and the civilians. “This research illustrates that nearly nine years after entering Afghanistan, many Afghans have almost no real knowledge or understanding of the motivations of the international community. The research overall indicates a lack of communication between the international community and the Afghan people; a failure to communicate facts and values, and respond to the emotional content and urgent needs of the local population”.
The reports states that the Taliban has inserted itself into the local society and created an effective political narrative: much more than an armed guerrilla insurgency, the Taliban today is a political force and a political player. The movement is waging a war of attrition on foreign forces, aiming to force NATO into a withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is aided by a domestic political backlash against the war in the West fuelled by the perceived lack of progress.
Making the case for a better future aligned the international community
At present, there is little understanding amongst ordinary Afghans of the tangible benefits provided by the West. Although the international community still has a great deal of work to do, it has indeed brought many real improvements in critical fields – in health, in education, in infrastructure, and in economic development. Some Afghans do recognise this, with 48% viewing recent reconstruction efforts in their area positively. The international community must make a clear case that there is a better future for Afghans and their families if Afghanistan is aligned to the West and its security concerns (in other words, no Al Qaeda bases on Afghan soil) rather than to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Building a new partner of NextGenAfg
Preventing this scenario in the long run will require focusing positively interacting with “NextGenAfg”, the youth of Afghanistan who must be empowered to become a new generation of responsible and peaceful citizens. Young, untainted political leaders must be nurtured. “Relying on the existing elites will only prolong the current cycle of grievances, revenge, and jockeying for power,” says Kamminga.
Renovate Counter Narcotics Policies
The report outlined a series of recommendations related to closing the relationship gap and supporting the development of NextGenAfg. In addition the report recommended the establishment of Poppy for Medicine pilot in southern Afghanistan before the upcoming growing season (starting in October- November 2010). Villages would be allocated licences to grow opium poppies which would be processed into morphine in local facilities under a tightly controlled system, and utilised to meet the global shortage of pain killing medicines.
MacDonald concluded: “The current view of local dynamics in Southern Afghanistan needs a dramatic adjustment. This is not a question of more troops or more money. It is a question of building an effective strategic collaboration with the local population that properly supports our military operation, and will reinvent the security landscape.”