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Losing Afghans

Western troops must use different methods and strategies to stop harming civilians.

Gulbuddin Elham / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org

There is an Afghan proverb that goes: ‘The power of the people is equal to God’s power.’ It’s a way of saying: ‘Ignore people power at your peril.’ It was due to this power that seven years ago the Afghans, supported by only a few thousand American-led foreign troops, toppled the Taliban in just two months.

Today we have many more foreign and Afghan troops on the ground. There are nearly 70,000 international soldiers from around 40 countries, here to fight Taliban-led insurgency and to bring security. Almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces have some sort of foreign military presence. But what could have been the key solution to our problems is now a foundation for failure – a failure that the West is rapidly moving towards.

The international forces may have killed more Taliban in the past few years, but they are falling behind in uniting hearts and minds against the Taliban, a movement considered the most horrific in our history. Though unpopular and discredited, the Taliban is gaining public support because it is fighting against a foreign force and resisting a government that is ineffective, corrupt and lacks any justice.

In the first few years following 9/11, Taliban members could barely appear in public places. Their activities were ‘hit and run’, attacking then scuttling back over the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan. The idea of a resurgent Taliban was out of the question.

The Afghan people, who historically do not like foreign forces, had welcomed the Americans and their allies in the hope that they would leave again once they had trained, equipped and supported a new Afghan national army. Now there are 150,000 Afghans in the internationally backed and trained Afghan Army and National Police Force. But on the ground, the force that dominates consists of either heavily armed foreign military or armed men connected to private security companies. The latter guard the fortified military compounds – where foreign troops spend most of their three- or six-month-long missions in Afghanistan – and the supplies to them.

Most of these private security companies are run by Afghan ex-Mujahidin warlords who were disarmed, using millions of dollars of donor funding, as part of an ambitious Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme in 2003. Against the wishes and expectations of ordinary Afghans, the warlords were then re-armed, equipped and financed by the US, Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.

Some of these security outfits are run by warlords named in the United Nations’ list of Afghanistan’s war criminals. Men such as former Afghan Defence minister Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and warlord-parliamentarians Ustad Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayaf, Mohammad Muhaqiq and Abdul Rashid Dostum (see Who’s who page 17). Bringing these people back on board was a shattering blow to Afghan hopes for a new start. Privatization of security in Afghanistan has effectively undermined the fledgling Afghan army and police and has started to backfire. The foreign forces have allied themselves to a dangerous friend – what we Afghans call ‘a snake up one’s sleeve’.

‘Keep them inside, pissing out’

A common belief in foreign military circles was that it was better to have the ex-militia commanders, the bad guys, ‘inside the tent, pissing out, rather than outside, pissing in’. But now the warlords have turned around – they are ‘inside and pissing in’.

According to an informed source in northeastern Afghanistan, the armed groups in charge of security at NATO-led military bases are also involved in the illegal arms trade from northern to southern Afghanistan – for Taliban and al-Qaeda consumption. So the armed groups, paid by foreign forces to provide security, are actually smuggling arms to the south which are used to kill foreign and Afghan troops.

The rewards are handsome. A man loyal to a popular private militia in the south told me that he was one of 5,000 ‘Fedayan’ – men devoted to a famous commander contracted to provide security for foreign forces in the southern provinces. The commander, he said, earned up to $1 million a month from the US, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and British forces.

Where are the Afghan National Army and Police? Underpaid and poorly equipped, the Afghan police are mostly assigned to guarding local governors and the compounds of district chiefs. In some areas they don’t even dare wear their police uniforms – to enable a quick escape if approached by the Taliban.

The Afghan National Army is used mainly for back-up and is still not given the full authority to command and conduct military operations. If they were given this authority it would not only lend greater legitimacy to the Government, but it would also, crucially, reduce the number of civilian casualties.

Killing the wrong people

In late August we experienced one of the deadliest air strikes on civilians since 2001. According to both the Afghan Government and the United Nations, US forces bombed and killed more than 90 civilians, most of them women and children, in the town of Shindand, Herat Province. The scale of the casualties was at first denied by the US. 

News reports showed the remains of women and children, clothes and human flesh among the rubble in the bombed area. The reaction in the local and national media was one of grief, outrage, hatred and desire for revenge against American and NATO forces.

The Afghan Government tried to distance itself from the international forces, with President Karzai announcing that the Government would review and re-regulate the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Today, amid rising insecurity, kidnappings and criminal activity, Taliban militants are given sanctuary in communities and in homes right up to the gates of Kabul. In the south and east of the country, the Taliban is already running parallel administrations. In many areas people refer to Taliban courts rather than the Government’s system. Three years ago most Taliban fighters were religious students coming from madrasas in Pakistan. Today the Taliban is recruiting local Afghans.

Armed groups, paid by NATO to provide security, are smuggling arms to the Taliban

Take Karim Khan, a hydro-power engineer. Khan had welcomed foreign troops when they came to his village six years ago. He also participated in Afghanistan’s historic elections and voted for US-backed President Hamid Karzai. Now the engineer, badly needed in the understaffed Afghan Ministry of Water and Power, is fighting against the foreign forces alongside the Taliban.

‘In practice [the foreigners] have shown that they don’t care about Afghanistan. They are carelessly bombing civilian targets, they are installing corrupt Afghan governors and district chiefs and financing a corrupt government composed of criminals. It is not a question of Islam versus democracy or versus the West. By joining Taliban ranks I take revenge against a government that we supported, but which now is part of a system that is punishing us. We are taking revenge on foreign forces that we once welcomed and who now are cruelly bombing our houses, killing women and children,’ he said.

The increasing failure of the West, and the US in particular, is fuelling conspiracy theories among Afghans as to the real motives behind its military presence. Why, despite all the financial capability and technology, has the West failed to bring about any real change on the ground? Why have Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar not been captured?

Many, including some educated Afghans in senior Government positions, believe that the foreign forces are here to loot Afghanistan’s minerals and its antiquities and to present a military threat to other countries in the region, such as Iran. Some even believe that Osama bin Laden himself is an American puppet who paved the way for a US invasion of Afghanistan, and that the Americans do not intend to capture him because that would put an end to US military presence here.

These conspiracy theories may expand if we keep losing people like hydro-engineer Karim Khan.

It is impossible for Western troops to win Afghan hearts and minds unless they build up the legitimacy of the Afghan Government. They must use different methods and strategies to stop harming civilians. They can target the places where insurgency is rising and use better intelligence before conducting air-strikes. They could co-ordinate more efficiently with Afghan security forces, and they could improve their relations and interactions with local people.

Finally, they should work at bringing Afghans to the frontline in the fight against insurgency and in the job of rebuilding the country with full authority and autonomy.

Khabaryal is a pseudonym for an Afghan print and film journalist in Kabul.

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