Sunday, November 18, 2007

Afstan: Pessimism from people on the ground

There is, I think, a lot of truth in these views--but certainly no reason to think all is lost, especially if training and equipping the Afghan security forces really does move ahead smartly. And if the international community can get its aid and development act together (a point Canada supports). But it sure would be nice if certain NATO allies were willing to do more.

1) From the Senlis Council:
The Canadian death toll in Afghanistan rose by two yesterday amid the disclosure of grim new findings that suggest the resurgent Taliban is making dramatic territorial gains in the pivotal struggle for Kandahar.

A majority of Afghans in the embattled southern province believe that Canada's footprint is shrinking as Taliban insurgents "make the rules" of travel through greater swaths of territory, according to a survey conducted by the Senlis Council, one of the few Western research organizations still travelling Kandahar's risk-prone roads.

The widening security gap is matched by an equally disturbing political gap, with a majority of Afghans polled indicating they are losing faith in the fledgling government of President Hamid Karzai, the Senlis research shows.

The findings, disclosed to the Toronto Star ahead of a news conference to be held in London on Wednesday...

In its survey of Afghan views on the continuing struggle against the Taliban, the Senlis Council mobilized its staff of 50 to conduct 1,000 interviews across the country, including 250 in and around Kandahar City. Among the findings:

Armed Taliban checkpoints are becoming more commonplace in areas throughout the province, with a particularly high concentration of Taliban fighters in control of the town of Khakrez [emphasis added], northwest of Kandahar City, since September. Survey respondents also said Taliban recruiters have infiltrated refugee camps in the region.

Afghan residents and shopkeepers have all but evacuated the once bustling road to Lashkar Gar, a key artery leading to neighbouring Helmand province, citing fears of Taliban ambush.

Afghan workers displaced by Taliban encroachment have spilled into Kandahar City in search of day labour, increasing tensions by driving wages down. The current rate for day labour in the area is less than 180 Afghanis, about $3.50 Canadian.

Worsening relations between rival Pashtun tribes have contributed to a further weakening of Karzai's standing in his home province, with some sub-tribes feeling under-represented in the government.

Afghan poll respondents say many families have been terrorized into contributing to both ends of the struggle, placing one son with the Afghan National Army and another with the Taliban.

The Taliban is gaining grassroots political support by cleverly exploiting Afghan anger over civilian casualty counts throughout southern Afghanistan [emphasis added]...

"As we digest this new trove of data, we are putting together a number of recommendations and the biggest one is to point the finger at our NATO allies," MacDonald told the Star in an interview in the Afghan capital.

"It is becoming clear there are insufficient troops to secure Kandahar province. That is not Canada's problem. We've been doing our fair share – many would say more than our fair share.

"So this is not a criticism of the people of Kandahar, or the Karzai government, or the Canadian military. It is the rest of our NATO allies. These countries voted to create stability. Nevertheless, where are they now?" [emphasis added]..

"But as things stand, we are giving the Taliban a fantastic political opportunity to turn people against us. They are trying very hard to create the impression that Canada and its allies have broken their covenant with the Afghan people. And we need to get with the reality of that.

"The whole point here is that we cannot let Karzai go down in the south. Unless we want to see southern Afghanistan as a geo-political base for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we just cannot [emphasis added]."..
2) From an American living in Kandahar:
Wednesday, Oct. 31: I woke to the sound of artillery thudding -- like the beat of a heavy heart. It was Afghan army batteries firing into Arghandab, at new Taliban positions there. Through several nights, I had been listening, my ears pricking like a dog's, to the faint popping of gunfire, the clattering of helicopters, the whine of personnel carriers speeding along the roads, falling asleep only when the morning call to prayer rang out in the pre-dawn chill.

I can't explain how this felt, the penetration of war to this crucial part of Kandahar, where I have lived for six years. Arghandab district, with its riot of tangled fruit trees, is the lung of Kandahar province; its meandering, stone-studded river is the artery of the whole region. Arghandab is shade and water, and mud-walled orchards, and mulberries and apricots, and pomegranates the size of grapefruits hanging from the willowy branches...

...The Taliban now owned the whole district of Khakrez, just to the north of Arghandab. They had mined the roads and trapped the police and government officials in the district government building.

We looked at the roads leading down through the mountains, picking out good places for checkposts to stop a Taliban advance. Veteran fighters said each one needed only about 50 NATO soldiers and 200 Afghans. When I went to the local Canadian peacekeepers with the advice, they laughed. The Canadian commander simply didn't have the men [emphasis added]...

All through that day [Oct. 29], the battle lines were drawn: the Taliban north of the Arghandab river bed, government forces to the south. Cars ferried women and children away from the scene of the impending fight. Others, on foot, drove the animals that sustained their families ahead of them as they moved south, toward the city of Kandahar. It was the scene that has come to characterize the tragedies of recent years: poor people, innocent of the decisions that brought about violent events, fleeing ahead of their unfolding.

Only that night was a general council of war convened on the NATO military base outside Kandahar. All the actors were there: the chief of police; the head of the army corps; a representative of the governor, who was away on vacation; the Canadian battle group; the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team; U.S. police trainers and Special Forces officers; the untried son of Mullah Naqib. What a strange task it must have been for the Canadian commander to try to wrest a concerted plan from this company [emphasis added].

On the base the next day, I found a quietly exultant mood of work well done: NATO troops had responded, the Afghan National Army had responded, and some villages had been retaken, with significant Taliban casualties. The beginnings of a noose had been arrayed around the rest.

And yet I knew that the significance of this event could not be weighed in the usual quantitative metrics dear to journalists and military men. The number of bodies, the number of houses vacated, the inches of terrain occupied or retaken did not add up to the full reality of what had taken place. That reality was in the hearts of the people, the sinking sense of impending tragedy.

What had in fact transpired, in my view, was a deft, successful psychological operations action by the Taliban. Their attack on Arghandab was designed to communicate, and it did -- eloquently. It said that they are here [emphasis added]...

...these Taliban are not home-grown insurgents. These Taliban, I have become convinced by evidence gathered over the past six years, were reconstituted into a force for mischief by the military establishment -- in other words, it seems to me, the government -- of Pakistan, as a proxy fighting force to advance Pakistan's long-cherished agenda: to control all or part of Afghanistan, directly or indirectly...

...have the Taliban changed their approach to the exercise of power? Not in the least. They still seek to gain control via terror -- by hanging bodies upside-down from trees, by placing pieces of men in gunny sacks like quarters of meat to horrify their neighbors.

So what has changed in six years, except the West's failure to provide a palatable alternative? Is this to be the world's response to that failure? "Oh, we weren't able to do any better for the Afghans than the Taliban, so we may as well bring them back in and get the place off our hands."..

Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter, runs a local cooperative in Afghanistan.

To be realistic, the total number of civilian deaths caused by NATO and coalition forces does not seem all that great in a country of some 25-30 million (though of course civilian fatalities are concentrated in the south and east); the psychological impact may be something else:
Last year was the worst year for civilian casualties since the fall of the country's cruel Taliban regime, and 2007 is shaping up to be even worse. The most alarming point: As of July, more civilians had died as a result of NATO, U.S. and Afghan government firepower than had died due to the Taliban. According to U.N. figures, 314 civilians were killed by international and Afghan government forces in the first six months of this year, while 279 civilians were killed by the insurgents...


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