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Update from Kandahar: A City in Crisis and Implications for NATO
Conrad Jennings, 11/1/2008

Kandahar is a city in crisis.  In the six years that I’ve been visiting or living in the city, it is now in the worst state that I’ve ever seen.  However, local Kandaharis say they have experienced more turbulent times, but that is not saying much considering the last 30 years of persistent warfare. Moreover, there is little utility in comparing differing levels of destruction.  It should also be remembered that young people in Kandahar do not have this historical yardstick to measure the situation against - for them the situation now is as bad as they have ever seen.

Daily NATO bombing throughout the province, occasional suicide attacks within the city, pervasive and unashamed corruption, and an increasingly brutal campaign of assassinations are just some of the features of life for the average Kandahari.  Most Kandaharis have either a personal experience of these problems, or one of their close friends or relatives will have experienced them.

The challenge facing NATO forces in southern Afghanistan is both simple and daunting. If things continue as they are, the province will be lost to the Taliban, and the deaths of NATO and Coalition soldiers will have no meaning.  Therefore, incoming NATO forces should begin their tours like they are heading into an emergency, where there is no time to waste and where every action taken should be critically focused to have a specific effect.  

The Deterioration of Kandahar

Kandahar is the spiritual and economic centre of southern Afghanistan, barring the drugs trade which has its centre in Helmand, and as such it is the Taliban’s trophy city.  To lose control of Kandahar province would represent a tremendous loss to the entire NATO strategy in Afghanistan. 

It is important to remember that until around 1964 Kandahar was the name for a larger provincial area, which included what is now Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces.  Most Afghan people from the area – especially the ones living in what is now called Kandahar – still refer to the area in these terms. This is important because in reality what NATO does affects the provinces surrounding Kandahar, and vice-versa.  Any solution for Kandahar must also incorporate the surrounding provinces that make up “Greater Kandahar”. The Taliban know and recognize this larger provincial area and operate accordingly, moving – just as they did in the 1980s – between province, between districts without concern for borders and boundaries. NATO’s inability to do this with their limiting AO definitions and responsibilities as well as the county’s artificial provincial divisions has not helped the fight against the Taliban.  Rather it implants confusion into the very heart of what NATO is doing in southern Afghanistan

A brief straw poll of tribal elders, ex-mujahedeen commanders and other influential leaders in the province found most of them believed Kandahar will fall to the Taliban within the next 12 months.  This does not mean a permanent transfer of authority to the Taliban, but rather that the provinces will become no-go zones for NATO forces on the ground, and that the city will at some point undergo an invasion by a sizeable Taliban force – perhaps 500 to 1000 men. The seemingly inevitable assault on Kandahar exemplifies the dire situation the province now faces.

Aside from making up the bulk of the population of Kandahar province, it is the rural villagers who also provide the bulk of Afghan recruits to the Taliban.  This has roots in the widespread illiteracy of the rural population, but this is something NATO forces have to engage with and come to terms with to understand how Kandahar works.  One of the reasons the Taliban are so successful is that they target their message and goals to the rural population,[1]  something NATO has failed to achieve. NATO needs to take these people into account, by working together with the development agencies, such as the CIDA and the PRT, in providing visible signs of the money that passes through Kandahar, or by simply making sure to consult with tribal elders from the villages regularly. The villagers and rural community as a whole are those people who will determine whether NATO succeeds or fails in their mission.

The war that raged throughout southern Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s was mostly fought in Kandahar.  There were some mujahedeen engagements and battles in Helmand, Uruzgan and elsewhere, but the majority of the fighting took place in Kandahar in exactly the same places that the Taliban now fight. A significant number of those who are presently fighting also fought then in the 1980s. This is especially true for those in command of particular Taliban groups.  NATO is locked in fighting against a group that has already been through a 10-year war; people who have sometimes fought in engagements which included over 2000 tanks.  These insurgents are now blended into the rural hinterland regions.  Much of the past eight years have been wasted focusing on the cities when in fact it is the villages where the “centre of gravity” for this conflict resides.

This was one of the key failures of the Soviet approach in southern Afghanistan: they were advised by the Afghan government that the rural population would acquiesce once certain key tribal elders and religious scholars were arrested or otherwise removed. This power that the villagers have is not confined to the outskirts of the city.  One of the most important features of Kandahar city is its status as a hub for trade – legal or illegal.  This means that many people pass through the city with various goods for sale.  There is also a significant amount of migration from the villages to the cities – which offer more economic and educational opportunities for the young.

A critical component to understanding Kandahar, a phenomenally complicated place – and a complicated wedge in the even more complex whole of Afghanistan - relates to the division in Kandahar province between the city and the village.  This is the fundamental division that is made among people in Kandahar city and in Afghanistan as a whole.  It encompasses differing views of Islam and of modernity. 

Small divisions and conflicts within the city can also be found, not necessarily expressed in violence. These two types of people (rural and urban) are treated, and treat each other, in different ways.  This can either be in the level of hospitality shown or in the level of trust granted to others. The fundamental values of the village are always somewhere under the surface of any encounter, even with someone who has lived in the city all his life.

So how does this fundamental division express itself?  At its heart it is a conflict of values, familiar from our own debate of the values of the city versus those of the countryside.  People from the city see villagers as being too rigidly held to tradition, too unwilling to adopt and embrace change in their lives, and in general too stubborn for their own good.  It is, however, the villagers who set the tone for popular opinion in southern Afghanistan.  They see the city as a locus of corruption and moral degradation, which they conceptualize in moral terms, derived from their strong and rigid conception of Islam. 

When the Taliban captured Kabul in late September of 1996, this was as much the culmination of a ‘rural revolution’ as it was the culmination of their initial military strategy.  Most of the fighters who took control of the capital had never visited such a place in their lives, and in fact had mostly been indoctrinated to see it as a sort of Afghan Babylon.  One of their first acts was to impose their village values on the former ruler of Afghanistan by executing him and brutally hanging his mutilated body in the streets with dollars stuffed in his mouth.

The Role of Pashtunwali

Pashtunwali is the foundation of Pashtun village culture.  It literally translates as ‘the governance of the Pashtuns’, but it is far more than a legal system.  The precise rules and regulations are to be found in some documents dating back hundreds of years, but in reality it is a flexible system with some basic concepts equivalent to medieval honour codes found in Europe several hundred years ago.

Its central concept is that of honour; but freedom, in general terms, is also quite central to Pashtunwali – freedom from invasion and oppression, but also the freedom to act as you wish so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of another.  Hospitality is equally important.  Mullah Omar’s refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden to United States following the 9-11 attacks is a clear example of the importance hospitality holds in Pashtunwali.  Revenge is also a key concept, especially since a significant number of those fighting in Taliban ranks claim to be doing so in revenge for coalition forces’ bombings which killed friends, family or more distant relatives.  The institution of jirga (council) is also firmly a part of village culture and Pashtunwali.  This is an occasion in which conflicting parties meet to discuss an issue and in which elders mediate on a solution.    All these are then channelled through the prism of Islam, discarding the bits and pieces which are not compatible.

This process creates local versions of Islam, some of which bear only a tenuous relation to the Islam practiced in other parts of the Muslim world.  The relation between Islam and Pashtunwali is easy to spot – an insistence on justice, the importance of honour, the protection of women, family and property - all concepts that are common to the major monotheistic faiths.

It is in the less abstract customs of Pashtunwali that the conflict with Islam can be located.  For instance the very strong desire to mitigate conflict through the institution of jirga often results in marriage exchanges between families where young girls are used as bargaining chips.  Similarly, the practice of going to shrines of holy men instead of visiting a doctor for some illness is common (although this practice has its roots in the urgent lack of practicing doctors in southern Afghanistan). These customs and traditions are in contrast to versions of Islam that educated city-members know and practice.  It is one of the reasons the Taliban were so hated and detested, even by fellow Muslims abroad who might otherwise have been happy to see a country Islamicized.  Rather, the version of Islam that the Taliban proposed (themselves from the villages) this version was seen as backward and false.

The concept of nang, or honour, is central to what it means to be a Pashtun, and, if he is true to his identity, informs much of what he does on a daily basis.  It connects him to his country, his land, his tribe, his family and his religion.  Anything foreigners do in this man’s country must take pains not to offend his sense of honour.

NATO – as an actor in the conflict and disputes of Kandahar – similarly has to take care to preserve their own honour in the same way that a Pashtun from Kandahar would.  NATO attempts to do this, for example, by retrieving the bodies of their dead and wounded from the battlefield.  But it is worth being aware, that seemingly ordinary things get interpreted by people from Kandahar in terms that they can understand.  While NATO is dealing with people in the city; the Taliban are engaging on a daily basis with people in the villages.  For the moment, there is not any way around this because NATO forces are based on the Kandahar Airfield (about 20 km from the city) or the PRT (on the outskirts of the city) where their interaction with ordinary Afghans is by definition severely limited.

The Taliban, on the other hand, live in these villages, come from similar tribes, understand the culture, and can move around the province in places that NATO would never dare visit without an armed escort.  This is one of the natural disadvantages that play against NATO, especially since the local people of the villages are now mostly working either against them, or at the very least are content with the Taliban working against them. This is the result of a failed policy of raids, executions and aerial bombings which have lost the support of the villages.  This is then coupled with the rampant corruption coming out from the Afghan government, the perception of bias in the delivery of money or services from donors and the poor behaviour of NATO’s local partners (especially the police force). The Taliban see this and exploit the situation through a slick and coordinated propaganda campaign. 

The Taliban’s Well-oiled Propaganda Machine

There is no doubt that the villages constitute the Taliban’s support base at the moment, just as it did for Taliban and mujahedeen fighting against the Soviets.  The Taliban did not just spring up in 1994 out of nowhere and were not merely the phantom creation of Pakistan’s security and intelligence services.  Rather, it was a local movement, indigenous to the area, and able to impose order on the Pashtun belt that extends from west to east in Afghanistan. Villagers provide support in the form of food, information and sometimes fighters.  This process is one of negotiation usually, and while there have been some indications of resistance or of villages expelling the Taliban from their areas, by and large villagers have cooperated.  They may not have been willing to do so, but by the logic of the power games that are played in Kandahar and in the south as a whole; the villagers calculate that the Taliban will be around longer than the foreigners and so take a decision for their long-term benefit.

The village populous also do not see much of the foreigners and only feel the impact of the military effort occasionally, or if the bargain they make with the Taliban goes wrong their village may be contested and bombed.  However, this does not necessarily turn them against the Taliban.  The Taliban have become masters at exploiting such situations.

The Taliban have a sizeable range of structures and networks that they employ to engage the rural population.  These range from trade links to religious and tribal ties.  One of the most effective of these, though, is their use of Mullah Networks to transmit their message.  The Kandahar correspondent for the Globe & Mail newspaper (Graeme Smith) did a series of 41 video interviews with mid-ranking Taliban commanders in Kandahar province last year.  It became clear after translating these videos from Pashtu into English, that for some of the questions, the responses were word-for-word identical to each other – at least for the first one or two sentences of the answer. Analysis of the project ruled out interviews being held in the same place and interviewees being prepped by more senior commanders for responses.  I believe there was some larger message-transmission project in play.  When examined further, it became evident the Taliban message transmission system used these travelling Mullah networks to spread their message.

The Mullah Network is comparable to Western politicians and spokesmen who receive lists of talking points in response to certain events.  Similarly, there are certain Mullahs who travel around the thousands of mosques in southern Afghanistan and preach certain specific messages to the congregation. During such visits the Mullahs do not announce themselves as ambassadors of the Taliban. This systematic effort has allowed the Taliban to spread their message pervasively throughout the south. 

The Taliban have also been successful in using economic pressures and ties to the drugs market to force compliance of the village communities.  As it currently stands, the drug economy provides the only access to land, credit, water and employment for many in southern Afghanistan. There are a few weeks each year devoted to the harvesting of poppies in Kandahar and Helmand; a time that traditionally lends to a lull in fighting.  It is also one of the safest times in the area because the entire workforce – including Taliban fighters – is busy with the harvest.

The pressure that the Taliban are able to exert on local communities through loans, debt, and the extortion of further promises or bribes from villages is a powerful means of subduing villagers through economic means.  There are two things to draw from this: first that forced crop eradication does not work.  While the idea of counter-narcotics as part of counter-insurgency is valid, it should target the 70-80% of profit being made by traders and the international market, rather than the 20-30% which goes to the farmers and day-harvesters.  If crops are forcefully eradicated, the villagers will only be driven straight into the Taliban’s hands.  Second, offering alternatives to poppy cultivation is a more effective approach, especially when coupled with provisions of security and governance for communities. These communities want alternative livelihoods.  The UN Drugs office, UNODC, found in 2007 that 98% of Afghans cultivating poppies would stop if they could dependably earn at least half as much from legal crops.

Perception: the Phantom Force

Most Afghans think that foreign forces are part of the problem in Afghanistan.  While perception is not the same thing as reality, massive public support of this idea is compounded by conspiracy theories, which are near-universally believed in southern Afghanistan.  NATO needs to recognise that it is part of the problem and then find ways to mitigate this through self-knowledge.  The way Canadians are perceived in Kandahar is as much related to how NATO and the whole mission is perceived.  Many elders in Kandahar have at least a vague idea of what is going on around the country.  The confusion comes from some common-sense assumptions that Afghans make about foreigners, mainly that foreigners work and think like Afghans.

The ways in which foreigners are manipulated by their supposed partners has not been fully documented, and it is still one of the key complaints of educated people and contractors – be they construction companies or just providers of spare parts.  Why, they ask, should I have to pay a bribe to the Afghan interpreter who sits on your contracts desk in order that he passes my contract onto the correct authority? And if the foreigners are really serious about getting rid of drugs, or the Taliban, why aren’t they arresting and going after the very senior leaders who travel to Dubai several times a year, or who go to Saudi Arabia regularly for the Hajj?

One of the ways this confusion manifests itself is in a seemingly unlimited supply of conspiracy theories about foreign forces and NATO.  These can range from seemingly innocent rumours like the one in February when people sent each other frantic text messages to inform their relatives not to answer any phones as NATO forces were testing out a new type of laser ray which would instantly kill them if they picked up.  Most Afghans in the south did not answer their phones on that day. Then there are the more insidious conspiracy theories which suggest that the Americans (all foreigners are automatically Americans in southern Afghanistan) are themselves funding the Taliban and play a part in the arming of al-Qaeda members.  Or the pervasive rumours that the two most recent assassinations of senior figures in Kandahari society by the Taliban were in fact carried out by ‘the Americans’.  And for many of these cases, it is not just theories.  People claim, for instance, to have seen helicopters in the air in the moments before the assassination of Habibullah Jan in the beginning of this summer.  That it was in fact, the two Talibs on the ground on a motorbike that shot him is irrelevant.  NATO must actively fight against these rumours.  One way to counter these theories would be to film and broadcast on local television a week-long, fly-on-the-wall documentary on NATO forces and their work and daily lives in Kandahar.

Currently, the problem lies in the fact that Afghans fail to understand the dynamics and difficulties of fighting a war with 40 countries in the operational field. It does not matter too much that the myth lacks foundation; if people believe it, it might as well be true. The failures of the NATO information strategy – along with the overwhelming successes of that put out by the Taliban – is worth a whole separate examination on its own.

Kandahar is a place where the people will always judge foreign intervention against the tapestry of history and public memory.  In this case, the confused intentions of NATO are held up against the comparatively straightforward reaction and reprisals of the Soviets in Kandahar.  There is a firm perception among former mujahedeen fighters and Taliban commanders that Canadians do not pursue attackers once they are attacked.  This is history coming back to haunt the current mission, as the mujahedeen and Taliban remember how the Russians would follow fighters all the way back to their houses and then arrest or kill them there – or at least try.

The current forces are following tight force protection measures, trying to prevent further casualties and returning to base; leaving the attackers to live another day. Locals feel that NATO forces are weak, uncommitted, and ultimately not serious about defeating their enemies. The mentality of the people NATO will be fighting does not allow for ‘rules of engagement’ or any such nuances.  Rumours from neighbouring provinces have spread to Kandahar, for example, about the Dutch, who are touted by the Taliban as the most cowardly force fighting in Afghanistan. The fact is that many Afghans will remain hesitant to commit themselves to any single cause or side because the balance of power and Afghanistan’s future stability remain in jeopardy, exacerbated by many of the perceptions previously mentioned.

Sitting on the Fence

Negotiations with the Taliban are widely advocated by many and this process has failed to get off the ground.  One of the major problems with this – in terms of the human geography and perceptions of Canadians and NATO in Kandahar province – is that any call for negotiations is seen as a sign of weakness.  You are only asking to negotiate because you are loosing, the argument goes, and it does not seem too far away from the truth.  A certain level of confusion has resulted.  People do not know what to expect so they have to plan for every contingency – including the eventual departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the civil war that would almost certainly follow.

Locals see that there has not been a crack-down on the big threats of corruption, the key players from the drug business and the Taliban – and accordingly they are sitting on a fence waiting to see what will happen. Kandaharis are all sitting on that fence.  Some have the courage and conviction to come down and work together with Canadians, or with the government, but most of those who do so are either forced into this decision by economic problems, or have an alternative agenda, usually linked to corruption of some sort.

The lack of any basis for making long-term decisions affects people from the city equally as much as it affects people from the villages. It encompasses the whole spectrum of society, from young people, to adults, to soldiers, to government, to the police.  In it you can find the seeds of corruption or debt-settling and revenge killings. Every decision is informed by uncertainty and correlates with all relationships NATO attempts to build.  This includes the Afghan government members, tribal elders, religious leaders, national police and so on.

Why, for instance, would a mid-ranking police officer working out in the districts attempt to alienate the people who – in the end – will decide whether he lives or dies?  He does not get paid on time – in fact probably has not been paid his salary in the last 3 months judging from conversations I had with police officers in the districts last week – and there is only minimal support from the city, let alone from the capital.  So, he makes a bargain with someone.  It could be the Taliban, it could be criminals, and it could just be tribal elders.  But he makes a decision that he would rather live than die.  If he does not get supported financially and operationally he is always going to make this choice.  Again, this encompasses the whole host of people that make up Kandahar’s society.  Tribal elders have told me time and time again that they are waiting for the situation to clear up before they pitch themselves in any one direction. 

There was a lot of fuss in March this year when a second and alternative provincial council was created.  It was the brainchild of Hajji Mohammad Essa Khan, the former attorney general of Kandahar, who is also head of one of the most powerful tribes in Kandahar – and it was initially incredibly popular amongst these fence-sitting tribal leaders because it offered them a tribal solution to their problems and carried the promise of finally having authority to really stand next to the government and act independently.  Unfortunately, this council failed as it was hijacked by members of the present government and president Karzai’s family who saw the council as a threat to their power.  But it just goes to show that it is possible to get people to come down off the fence.

Similarly with villagers, religious people and even people who are in some way connected to the government.  They are waiting for a third way.  At the moment the two options an Afghan can take in his life is to join the government or the Taliban.  People want an alternative, but there is none to be found.  This affects how NATO should view their relationship with Afghans, and also how much NATO should trust the decisions and information that they share with them.  People from Kandahar are mostly in it for the short-term – they have no other choice. 

NATO-borne Corruption in Kandahar

One major way NATO is part of the problem that does not involve people dying – at least not initially – is through the money that’s being channelled into Afghanistan and Kandahar from abroad.  This money is the source of great resentment by Afghans who have yet to see real improvements in their lives from the billions of dollars that have already been spent on Afghanistan.  They just see the money returning to foreign countries in the form of contracts made to security companies, or for weapons purchases, or in terms of the inflated and sometimes astounding salaries that consultants and NGO workers take home at the end of the day. This money is, in part, responsible for the rampant corruption and graft that has helped ruin Kandahar. This is directly related to the people’s lack of long-term vision.  They want to make money now.

The lack of a long-term vision, in turn created by the confusion over motives and intent on the part of NATO and the Canadians, means people are living for today only.  This directly affects how people act and how people carry out work for NATO. Take civilian contractors for example, most of them are just in it for the money, however the risks for these people are very real.  Attacks on contractors have risen in the past few months.  Four friends of mine were killed in separate incidents in the last month alone.  Working on projects west of Kandahar City that prevent the Taliban from planting IEDs targeting Afghan government and Canadian convoys travelling on the road, they were killed by Taliban.

The security is so dangerous, that many contractors would rather just fake their work, buy some photos of construction projects from a rival and then collect the money safe in the knowledge that there is no post-project monitoring or assessment going on.  Even if some efforts are taken to send people out to the site, there are always ways to cover things up – yet another example of NATO-borne corruption in Kandahar.

This has been documented, but the full extent of the problem is still either unknown or being ignored.  Take the mafia running the contracting department at the PRT and on Kandahar’s airfield.  This is run by two prominent allies of NATO who made a name for themselves with the last governor of the province – one is his brother, in fact.  They are manipulating the contract system.

There are countless examples of more mundane deceptions such as when translators mistranslate –on purpose – entire meetings with informants, contractors and the like, all so they can manipulate the situation. The recent aerial bombing that killed dozens in the western province of Herat is one example of false informants influencing our operations.

The first weakness is actually NATO’s Afghan support staff.  Even before troops get off the base they are operating at a disadvantage.  This mafia has a monopoly on the money being disbursed by the international community in Kandahar, and mostly decides who gets a share.  Lower-level members of this group take bribes to set up meetings with Canadians, or even just to make sure that proposals reach the contracting office.  They take amounts from 5 to $10,000 for each proposal.  Contract wars being fought over Canadian donor money are increasingly common, and mainly are between construction companies. 

It is easy and cheap to pay someone to make, set up and plant a bomb for you to target someone else.  There is a blanket security vacuum in town – where even the police headquarters has been successfully targeted by suicide bombers three times in as many years.  Given all this, it is natural that what is initially healthy economic competition can develop into battles to eliminate their rivals.  February was particularly bad in this respect – contractors were putting IEDs in each other’s bridges, and I know of at least three attacks that took place in this way.  Each time they wanted to eliminate their rivals so that they could take over the contract themselves.  What options remain for NATO forces, hunkered inside bases or the PRTs, unable to check out all the facts, and only working through an interpreter?

The Taliban swept through Kandahar with a promise of little except security and justice.  This limited concept of government is what marks them out from NATO units. NATO is failing to secure Kandahar because they tried the opposite – promising everything and delivering only a confused jumble at best – and at worst a predatory government, a wrong-headed narcotics policy and an absurd anti-terrorism hunt. Only if NATO forces become realistic in their goals can they have any chance of achieving success.

Disconnect, Confusion and the Derailment of NATO’s Reputation

The first thing that people from Kandahar notice about anyone visiting the province is the disconnect between what people say and what they do. Why, they ask, would you promise to do one thing and then not follow through?  This confusion has spawned all sorts of problems from a type of thinking that refuses to see forward to the next day or to endless conspiracy theories about why you can’t defeat the Taliban. Again, any statement foreigners make or made is likely to be filed away and used to judge them at the end of the day.  Afghans remember the things that are promised to them and they are resentful when that promise is broken. 

Afghans understand the simple messages we inadvertently illicit when failing to end corruption. Afghans see when tribal elders and commander-type figures are invited to meetings with the full knowledge that they have been robbing the government or dealing drugs.  The clearest example of this is the president’s brother, Wali Karzai, who is one of the big drug players in southern Afghanistan.  This disconnect between good intentions and the grimy reality of the situation in Kandahar is likely to derail NATO’s remaining reputation in Kandahar province. The problems described with these two examples are part of the everyday rhetoric in town. Nobody expects NATO to follow-through on promises anymore - this is working against the current mission in a very big way. Part of the problem is something NATO forces cannot change.  Canadian troops in Kandahar, technically, are not political representatives of Canada, but, to paraphrase Clausewitz, you are the extension of politics through other means.  The Canadian politicians will often say things that bear no relation to immediate needs in Kandahar. For example, take the recently touted 20 goals that the Canadian government wants to see accomplished in Afghanistan between now and 2011.[2]  These are good ideas in Canada perhaps, but they are dreamed up in Canada, not in Kandahar. Or take the requirement for every proposal submitted to CIDA[3]  to include specifications of how the project will incorporate and strengthen the role of women in society.  These battles cannot be fought all at once.  The Taliban and the failures of the Afghan government should be given the first and most immediate priority.  Afghans question our sincerity when they hear the all-encompassing promises from politicians in Canada, and see the failure of the simplest promises in Kandahar.

Given the unfortunate lack of a working institutional memory for operations in Kandahar, each new deployment must make the same mistakes as the one that preceded them. Not to have a firm idea of the goals set upon the deploying force is also handing the Taliban a blank check to cash in terms of real and active propaganda gains. A mistake or misjudgement borne out of ignorance is still a mistake. In contrast to NATO forces, the Taliban are perceived to be delivering on their promises.  Note, at this point, that their lack of bureaucracy allows them to be flexible, as well as to encourage this perception of progress.  They do not make grand statements about how they want to solve Afghanistan’s problems (A statement like that has never surfaced on the Taliban’s website).[4]   Instead, they construct messages that hold emotional resonance with villagers, appealing to their pride as Pashtuns, to their sense of honour and respect.

Learning from the Taliban

To spend any amount of time reading op-eds on the Taliban propaganda site is to enter a world of half-truths and sometimes also fairly legitimate complaints.   An analytical article about Kandahar will offer an extremely accurate and detailed representation of what is going on at the moment, and then in the last five lines of the article will come the kicker: the part of the article that wraps up everything that’s come before and says, “and that’s why you should support us and come and fight the infidel occupation force.”

The Taliban are very good at keeping to a small number of messages and repeating them over and over, often falling back on the nostalgic age of 1994.  The limited aims and agenda of the Taliban is one of the main reasons that explain the speed with which they took control of southern Afghanistan in 1994.  They came into power on the basis and with the backing of the tribes and with a promise to deliver security and justice. The simplicity of this message was incredibly effective in motivating people, and persuading warlords and petty criminals to turn themselves in and support the movement.

The Taliban played an especially prominent role in the Soviet jihad, and their flowering into a full-blown movement in 1994 was in many ways an extension of what they had been doing in the 1980s.  While some of them are spurred on by the memory of this power, they do not have an actual agenda for how they hope to rule if they take power again.  Talk to any Talib and ask him questions about how they hope to rule the country. His answer will not get very far beyond a catch-all answer that just says they want an Islamic regime in charge.  The simplicity of their current agenda can be summarised by two words: foreigners out. All their calculations, including negotiations, put this simple demand first.

Fatwas have been issued to encourage young people – both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan to fight against NATO, foreigners and against the Afghan government.  They typically tell the youth that “Islam is under threat”. These give fighters a surety of purpose that NATO will be hard pressed to match. This decision cannot be reversed nor can it be reasoned with.  This is one of the reasons why NATO will eventually have to leave Afghanistan.

Part of the Taliban’s appeal to ordinary Kandaharis is the Taliban’s status as underdog champions of the Afghan cause in the face of foreign oppression.  This is inevitable, and of course it is the scourge of the multitude of counterinsurgency campaigns that have been waged over the last hundred years. This underdog status is touted in emotive statements calling on people to remember previous examples of foreign troops in Afghanistan.  Again, there is currently nothing being put out from either the Afghan government side or in any other medium that challenges these messages.

Clarifying NATO’s Aims

Aside from doing less and scaling down the things NATO intends to do, it is equally as important that NATO forces actively engage with local problems. Ultimately, NATO must build institutions that allow others to move in as the authority.  This is more or less what the Taliban are doing at the moment – setting up courts in the districts in much the same way that they did during the 1980s during the Russian war.  They are setting up these courts because the government courts are corrupt. Back in the 1980s the Taliban courts were overarching – others mujahideen groups would come to Taliban to solve their problems. Nowadays, the courts operate in the same places that they did in the 1980s, and they are a rallying call and justification for all those who claim that the Taliban are providing justice.

Just staying on base and not getting to know the operational environment with all due thoroughness is to miss an excellent opportunity. Confusion is caused by NATO’s failure to actively engage with local problems, or by applying double standards. Why is NATO here, the argument goes, if they are not trying to help people?  This is the most general strain of a whole host of complaints relating to perceived inactivity on the part of Canadians. Just look at the whole spectrum of past and present NATO aims in Afghanistan: women - but Karzai recently pardoned 5 people convicted of raping a 13-year old girl. Drugs – but smugglers and druglords travel freely and one of them is head of Kandahar’s provincial council. Terrorism – but deals are readily made with these people. Peace – but local militias are being rearmed. Corruption – but NATO’s Afghan intermediaries run a mafia from inside Kandahar airfield.
 
A City in Crisis, a Mission in Crisis

If things continue as they are, the province will certainly be lost to the Taliban. With violence continuing to rise throughout southern Afghanistan and as time marches toward the predetermined exit dates for some NATO participants in the Afghan theatre, the window of opportunity for re-establishing the groundwork for Afghanistan’s future stability is coming to a rapid close. Turning back the tide of local discontent will be a difficult task, but an essential one if any headway is to be made against the rising support for Taliban insurgents; especially throughout the countryside and villages where Taliban approval is high and NATO involvement is scarce.

Limiting the scope of NATO’s objectives should be a priority. Focusing on what goals can actually be promised and delivered is far more important that outlining a long list of pledges that is never achieved. The mafia operating within the confines of Kandahar airfield needs to be purged. Eradicating this social and economic disease should help set the framework needed for future aid and reconstruction projects to flourish. At the end of the day, Afghans want a secure environment, free from the banditry and corruption reminiscent of the days and months in the early 1990s.

Many of the same social conditions that prompted the Taliban’s popularity and sweeping security accomplishments back then exist today.  The Taliban limited their promises made to Kandaharis; nothing more than security and justice. The Taliban successfully delivered these promises within a few short months over much of the province. In this aspect, NATO must revaluate its goals into an obtainable short-list. The burden of bureaucracy and failed promises are unnecessary forces working against NATO’s effort and is stoking local discontent and sowing the seeds of confusion. All of these battles cannot be fought at once, however, an acute awareness of the issues at hand will allow for a stronger foundation to be built upon for the measures needed to ensure the future of Afghanistan’s stability.


[1]As for precise demographics, there are no real scientific figures to be obtained for southern Afghanistan post Soviet invasion, but certain assumptions can be made from voter registration data for the previous elections, as well as general experiential evidence.
[2]CBC News, “Canada outlines 21 goals for Afghanistan,” CBC News.ca, September 5, 2008, a href="http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/09/05/benchmarks-afghanistan.html?ref=rss (October 20, 2008).
[3]Canadian International Development Agency
[4]See Taliban website: www.alemarah1.com