Conflict and Post Conflict Study

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The Taliban are winning the hearts and minds in Southern Afghanistan

14 December 2006

The Taliban are winning the hearts and minds in Southern Afghanistan

British and Canadian governments and their development agencies have abandoned their troops in Afghanistan

Fighting in south set to continue

Destruction of Afghan opium crops has created a chain reaction of violence and poverty
LONDON – The international community is losing the campaign for the hearts and minds of the people of southern Afghanistan and the Taliban are winning it, said the international security and development think tank, ICOS on the release of its latest report in London. This puts the British and Canadian servicemen who are posted there at risk.

The Report was released together with a short documentary, Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan: Zroona aw Zehnoona, which, through a series of interviews documents what ordinary Afghan people say is needed to win back their hearts and minds, and how the international community has lost them over the last five years

“The international community simply does not have a hearts and minds strategy in southern Afghanistan, but they sorely need one if they have any hope of winning this war,” said Norine MacDonald QC, Founder and President of ICOS, who has just returned from southern Afghanistan.

Aid to Afghanistan – far too little, far too late

The Report said that the main foreign government’s development agencies present in Afghanistan – USAID, the Canadian international development Agency (CIDA) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) – are not functioning in southern Afghanistan and that even the most basic aid such as food relief is so minimal that it is functionally non-existent

“The little food aid there was in Kandahar and Helmand mysteriously stopped last March,” said MacDonald. “So far we have found no explanation for this, but it has certainly had an extreme impact on the situation in the south of the country. Seventy percent of the population is suffering from a lack of food – and hunger leads to anger,” said MacDonald.

The failure of USAID, CIDA and DFID to provide effective development programmes has substantially contributed to the hostile environment in which the troops are fighting.

“These agencies are therefore responsible for the significant number of military deaths in the south,” said MacDonald. “The Ministers in charge of those agencies should be removed.”

A previous ICOS Afghanistan Report, Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban released in September, exposed the existence of unofficial makeshift camps of internal refugees in which a hunger crisis and extreme poverty are now firmly established. Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan Zroona aw Zehnoona notes that these camps also provide ripe recruiting ground for the Taliban.

One woman from a city camp in Kandahar is quoted in the Report as saying, “We moved to this camp because our village was bombed. I lost two of my daughters in the bombing. I have no food for my children. We need food and shelter.”

Troops in Afghanistan are being given the wrong mission

“The soldiers on the ground cannot be blamed for the policy failures of the international community,” said MacDonald. “They have simply done what they were asked to do by their governments and have done that bravely in a hostile environment. Unfortunately, the political decisions have proven to be a series of tragic blunders. The first victims of this are our troops and the second victims are the Afghans.”

MacDonald, who is also the Council’s Lead Field Researcher in Afghanistan and who headed the Report, said that the Taliban have waged an extremely effective hearts and minds campaign in southern Afghanistan, gaining support by taking advantage if the international community’s errors.

Taliban propaganda is sophisticated and effective

A Taliban magazine is quoted as saying in the Report that “when the Afghans demand their rights the Westerners respond with bombing. If the Afghans do not fight they will be slaves forever and the foreigners will name this slavery democracy and freedom.”

“The Taliban are reaching out to the people and shaping their perceptions, locking Afghanistan into the spiral of conflict,” said MacDonald. “By spreading anti-Western propaganda the Taliban has managed to cast doubt over the reasons behind the international presence in Afghanistan. The troops are the first to pay the price – tragically this is sometimes with their lives.”

Not only has the international community failed to deliver the necessary aid to Afghanistan, it has exacerbated the desperate situation of the people by unleashing a brutal bombing campaign, using the elimination of the Taliban as justification

Destruction is more extensive than reconstruction in southern Afghanistan

The Report notes that the mounting numbers of civilian casualties and deaths resulting from the bombings intended to root out the Taliban, combined with the increasing numbers of families fleeing their home villages because they have been caught-up in violence, intensifying the conflict in the south of the country, and have provided a perfect breeding ground for Taliban propaganda and Taliban recruitment. Two thousand six hundred bombing missions were flown this year under the instructions of the international community.

“The intensive air-bombing by the international community and the civilian casualties which have ensued make suicide bombings and other Taliban attacks more acceptable in the eyes of the local communities. They do not see either of them as legitimate – both indiscriminately kill civilians,” said MacDonald. “We call for an independent public investigation into the extent of the bombings and the real levels of damage they have caused. At the moment the perception of the population in the south is that destruction is more extensive than reconstruction in southern Afghanistan.”

US-led poppy crop Eradication policy has engendered more violence

The current US-led policy of forced opium poppy crop eradication has wrought economic disaster on southern Afghanistan. Livelihoods have been destroyed and entire families have had to leave their villages for the makeshift camps of internally displaced people.

“Poppy crop eradication is a destructive policy which has fuelled the insurgency because people now mistrust the international community who are perceived as being its instigators,” said MacDonald.

There are reports that the chemical destruction of poppy crops will take place next year at the proposition of the United States.

“The US will fuel more anger and resentment by spraying the Afghan poppy crops – it is tantamount to chemical warfare. History from the Vietnam War and the use of Agent Orange will repeat itself when the US once again poisons vulnerable local populations whilst destroying the already damaged and fragile eco-system of southern Afghanistan.”

The international community needs to launch campaigns with return on investment

The Report recommends:
1) A robust, extremely well funded and well organized urban and rural aid programme which matches the military campaign. This Hakia Kalay (Every Village) initiative must benefit even the smallest of villages to ensure the establishment of an effective hearts and minds strategy.
2) Bombing campaigns must cease immediately. Provisions must be made for the villagers who have had to leave their villages, medical assistance must be provided for civilian casualties and the eventual reconstruction of their homes.
3) Counter-narcotics strategies must also be dramatically changed. Eradication must stop and solutions for farmers who rely on the opium poppy for survival must be found.

“ICOS is proposing an opium licensing system for Afghanistan as a core part of the economic reconstruction process,” said MacDonald. “A system in which poppy is cultivated under license for the production of pain-killing medicines such as morphine or codeine would help to win-back the hearts and minds of the local population because it re-engages with them and works with rather than against them.”

The Council is ready to finance and oversee a series of scientific pilot projects to investigate the feasibility of an opium licensing system in Afghanistan.

“Through lack of both political will and political skill, the international community is undermining the Karzai government,” said MacDonald. “The international community has abandoned its military and it is abandoning the people of Afghanistan. Dramatic policy changes must be implemented in the next weeks. We have seen clear indications of the Taliban’s intentions to launch a major spring offensive against Kandahar City and Lashkar Gah.”

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