The South Asia Channel

The good, the bad, and the ugly in Afghanistan

The White House review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan provides a clear opportunity to identify which elements of the new approach have worked and which are falling short. In October 2010, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) conducted the latest in a series of surveys of Afghan public opinion. Building on two previous ...

MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images

The White House review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan provides a clear opportunity to identify which elements of the new approach have worked and which are falling short. In October 2010, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) conducted the latest in a series of surveys of Afghan public opinion. Building on two previous research phases in 2010, this assessment involved interviews with 1,000 Afghan men in the most disputed districts of Helmand and Kandahar. The results can be divided into three familiar categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good
Our field research shows that there is some progress being made in Afghanistan. In June 2010, only 34 percent of interviewees in Helmand’s Marjah district thought that NATO forces were winning the war. In October, this figure has risen to 64 percent. In Helmand’s Nawa district, only 20 percent of interviewees in June 2010 thought recent military operations in their area had been good for the Afghan people. This figure rose to 51 percent in October 2010. This sharp rise in perceptions of military success in districts which were the focus of the troop surge is encouraging. A poll recently commissioned by The Washington Post, ABC News, BBC, and ARDTV also found positive indications in Helmand  with the number of people describing their security as "good" increasing from 14 percent in 2009  to 67 percent, and  2/3 now saying Afghanistan is on the right track.

Additionally, support for women’s issues among the men interviewed in the conservative south was surprisingly high. Forty-Five percent of those interviewed support women voting in elections, while 44 percent of respondents in the south think women should have a greater role in government, and 45 percent believe that a greater role for women would improve the chances for peace in Afghanistan.

The Bad
Despite our many years in Afghanistan, the international community has collectively failed to explain its presence in Afghanistan and what international forces and non-government organizations — as opposed to the Taliban — can offer the people of Afghanistan.

Of serious concern is a fundamental lack of understanding within the local population regarding why international forces are in their communities. Forty percent of interviewees believe, according to our research, that international forces are in Afghanistan to destroy Islam or to occupy or destroy the country.

Disturbingly, only 8 percent of interviewees in the south knew the story of the 9/11 attacks and as a result had no understanding of the justification for the conflict with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Following on classic counter insurgency theory, the primary approach until now has been to concentrate efforts in building a credible and effective Afghan government. Although those attempts should be pursued with vigour, it must urgently be supplemented by a parallel "grass roots political surge" to dramatically improve the international community’s own relationship with the Afghan people.

The mistrust with which the foreign forces are viewed shows that we have failed to communicate to ordinary Afghan civilians who we are and why we are in Afghanistan, a critical element in supporting the troop surge properly, and ensuring its maximum effect.

The Ugly
The research findings indicate that both the effectiveness and the loyalty of Afghan security forces — a key element of the current strategy — need attention.

The perceived potential for Afghan forces to switch sides (after being trained by international forces) is at a dangerous level. Fifty-six percent of respondents believe Afghan police are helping the Taliban and 29 percent think that Afghan police end up joining the Taliban. Thirty-nine percent think that the Afghan National Army (ANA) are helping the Taliban; 30 percent of respondents think that ANA soldiers end up joining the Taliban.

According to interviews, the Taliban could easily rebuild their power in the country and 81 percent believed the return of the Taliban would mean a return of al Qaeda. Additionally, 72 percent believe that al Qaeda would then use Afghanistan to launch attacks on the West again.

Get in the Game
The findings of the research clearly demonstrate the "relationship gap" between the Afghan people and the international community. To bridge this gap the surge must be accompanied by long-overdue efforts to build ground-level political support for the foreign presence in Afghanistan. The negative impact of military actions must be tempered by dramatic positive impacts at the local level before, during and after the military operations. International forces and organizations must show that they can have positive impacts on the lives of ordinary Afghans who continue to face chronic problems such as food shortages, poverty and unemployment. This would not only reformulate the security landscape but would also demonstrate respect for the sacrifices that Afghan people are making in the war against insurgents.

Finally, we must make it clear to the Afghan people that a future with the international community opens up channels for development, stability, peace and democracy. A future with the Taliban closes these channels, leading to poverty, repression and isolation. We have failed to communicate effectively the benefits to the Afghan people of a future aligned with the West, and to make them aware of what would be lost by a return of the Taliban. The problem is not that our narrative is not winning, but rather that our narrative is not in the game.

The White House hopes to begin troop withdrawals by next summer. But a sustainable transition will ultimately not be possible without a dramatic change in our own political relationship with the Afghan people. This reformulation will not be successful without finally and effectively addressing the chronic and disturbing lack of positive outcomes of the international presence on the lives of the average Afghan, in whose villages we are prosecuting our war.

Norine MacDonald is the president and founder of the International Council On Security and Development.

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