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Hearts and minds

It goes by the unpropitious name of WHAM – ‘Winning Hearts And Minds’ – and it’s a key strategy in the coalition forces’ war against the Taliban and other insurgents. Teams of soldiers and some civilians – called PRTs or ‘provincial reconstruction teams’ – go about the country building schools, hospitals and the like.

Is WHAM working? A recent report1 surveyed some 60 Afghans – including aid workers, clerics, journalists, local leaders, civil servants – in three regions. Here’s a sample of their views.

What kind of guests...

1. What kind of guests...
‘What kind of guests are these people? Guests are not like these foreigners. They have all the authority that a host should have. They now perform the duties of the host and treat us, the people of Afghanistan, like guests!’
Religious leader in the province of Paktia


We are not saying  that all foreigners are our enemies...

2. We are not saying that all foreigners are our enemies...
‘If an NGO wants to show that they are here for development and reconstruction, and are not part of a political game, they must work closely with communities. They should also be sensitive to local customs and culture. We are not saying that all foreigners are our enemies. But in the case of Americans and their army, you cannot trust them.’
Tribal leader in Paktia


I want those times  back...

3. I want those times back...
‘When I was a child we ate very ordinary food, like yoghurt and corn bread, but had no worries about safety or whatever might happen the day after. Now we have a variety of good food but never enjoy it and l always worry about what will happen next. I want those times back. I want to move around freely. I want to sleep serenely without the anxiety that comes with gunfire.’
Shura member in Uruzgan


Private companies...

4. Private companies...
‘Private companies are notoriously corrupt and people in the PRT seem to be corrupt because they know that the quality of their work is worse and still they continue to give contracts to those private companies. We complained many times....’
Local leader in Paktia


Dangerous blankets...

5. Dangerous blankets...
‘Sometimes the military make very grave mistakes that put lives in danger. In Shamali some military personnel distributed blankets to the disabled and on the blankets were phone numbers and a request asking them to call if they have any information about al Qaeda. They really put those who received the blankets in danger.’
Civil society representative in Kabul


Bullying elders...

6. Bullying elders...
‘Foreign forces employ bullying tactics. They humiliate elders in front of their relatives; put a bag on their heads and body search their female family members. It obviously benefits the Taliban [who] have mobile phone photographs of such incidents and now send them via mobile to each and everyone.’
Shura member in Uruzgan



7. Accountability...
‘It is easy to deal with NGOs. We can criticize them and persuade them to be accountable. With contractors we cannot do this because they are all linked to the Government and are not even ready to talk to us.’
Tribal leader in Paktia


‘Low cost’ schools...

8. ‘Low cost’ schools...
‘The 50 schools that the PRTs contracted are rated as “low cost” schools, which means they will use wooden beams for the roofs. Since Paktia has metres of snow in winter, these schools will not last long.’
Government worker in Paktia



9. Autonomy
‘People do not have any power or authority over their own lives.’
Shura member in Uruzgan


Keep them away...

10. Keep them away...
‘We try to keep PRTs away from our offices and do not interact with them because it brings threats from insurgents and suspicion from our target communities.’
Aid worker for Afghan NGO in the province of Kabul


PRT security?

11. PRT security?
‘The PRT does not help promote security – I would say it is doing the opposite.’
Tribal leader in Paktia


Uniforms and big security

12. Uniforms and big security
‘The PRT people come with uniforms and big security and people hate that.’
Government employee in Uruzgan


1. Afghan Hearts, Afghan Minds: Exploring Afghan perceptions of civil military relations; research conducted for the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan (ENNA) and the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG), by Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam et al, 2008.

Photo credits:
3, 4, 9, 12 Fardin Waezi / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN
1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11 Gulbuddin Elham / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org

New Internationalist issue 417 magazine cover This article is from the November 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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