Research regarding the death of Osama Bin Laden, conducted immediately following the event, revealed mixed opinions among Afghan men interviewed. The majority of respondents thought his death was good news, with the most significant pockets of negative opinion present in Kabul University and Marjah district in Helmand. Opinions of those interviewed were split on whether or not his death will signify the end of Al Qaeda, but the majority of respondents believe it will have a negative effect on the Taliban.
Transition and Local Dynamics
The research cycle showed that overall in the north of Afghanistan there is good news for the transition agenda, but there are areas of weakness related to the hearts and minds campaign throughout the country. The relatively positive news in the northern provinces is offset by the decrease in support from interviewees for the NATO-ISAF mission in the southern provinces on a significant number of “hearts and minds” key indicators.
The US troop surge has brought unquestionable military success, with many Afghans interviewed now believing that international and Afghan forces are winning the fight against the Taliban. However, these military successes have also created “Blowback”, which is negatively impacting Afghan hearts and minds in the south.
The international coalition has not effectively communicated to the Afghan people the reasons for its presence in Afghanistan. There is a generalised belief among interviewees that the international community does not protect, and does not respect, the Afghan people or their culture and religion. Support is lacking on these indicators from respondents across the country, even in the more stable northern provinces. This has been compounded by a wave of recent negative news stories.
The negative impacts of the military operations revealed by the interviews, and the general backdrop of news in the south, give the Taliban an opportunity to “Pushback” and gain ground by capitalising on the increasing resentment of the foreign presence within the local population , which is emotionally volatile, traumatised, isolated, and easily manipulated by outside actors.
The Taliban’s psychological campaign has been able to persuade many Afghans of key points of the insurgents’ cause, reflected in a deterioration of positive support of interviewees for the foreign presence since the last research cycle in October 2010. The coalition has not been effectively competing with the insurgents in this arena.
The troop surge has not been accompanied by corresponding development and civilian ‘surges’. The gains that have been made on the battlefield are being undermined by a lack of analogous efforts in the fields of aid, development, governance and counter-narcotics. In many areas the main instruments of the international community’s engagement with Afghan communities are NATO-ISAF soldiers, who have limited capacity to engage positively with the local population while at the same time being responsible for security and clearing operations.
In many poppy-growing areas, the lack of an effective or sustainable counter-narcotics policy leaves farmers engaged in livelihoods they know are considered illegal by the international coalition, without provision for alternative livelihoods. The lack of an effective strategy in Pakistan against safe havens creates additional resentment to the local population caught in the conflict.
A Hearts and Minds surge is needed, with visible and positive impacts on ordinary Afghans’ lives, to support a durable transition.