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Improvement in negative perceptions of the international presence in southern Afghanistan

Press release19 November 2010

New field research shows some improvement in negative perceptions of the international presence in southern Afghanistan, but serious challenges remain

92% of respondents in the south were unaware of 9/11 events

56% of Afghans interviewed in Helmand and Kandahar believe Afghan police are helping the Taliban

61% of Afghans interviewed in Helmand and Kandahar believe the Afghan security forces won’t be able to provide security when foreign troops leave

Challenges ahead for the international community before it leaves Afghanistan – missing variables in transition equation must be addressed
KABUL – Although perceptions of the international presence in southern Afghanistan are still negative, there are some signs of progress, according to a report released today by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS).

Afghanistan Transition: Missing Variables draws on findings from field research interviewing 1,500 Afghan men in October 2010. The research, conducted by Afghan interviewers, asked questions of 1,000 men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the two provinces currently suffering the most violence in southern Afghanistan; and 500 men in the provinces of Parwan and Panjshir in the north of the country. Interviews in the south took place in the Kandahar districts of Zhari, Panjwai and Kandahar City; and in the Helmand districts of Lashkar Gah, Marjah, Nawa, Sangin, and Garmsir.

Guiding the transition
The report underlines that security efforts during the transition must be accompanied by long-overdue efforts to gain grassroots political support. The report shows that to succeed, the transition must provide positive impacts on the lives of ordinary Afghans caught up in the fighting.

“Securing the support of the Afghan people at the grassroots level is critical to the success of the transition and to achieve the overarching mission of stabilising Afghanistan so that it can never again be a base for Al Qaeda,” said Norine MacDonald, President and Lead Field Researcher of ICOS. “The international community must build an effective strategic collaboration with the local population that supports the military operation if we are to achieve a successful transition. This would not only reformulate the security landscape but respects the sacrifices that Afghan people are making in the war.”

Building political support: ‘Why we are here’
Of serious concern, 92% of respondents in the south are unaware of the events of 9/11 or that they triggered the current international presence in Afghanistan, while 43% of respondents in helmand and Kandahar are unable to name the good things about democracy.

“We need to explain to the Afghan people why we are here, and both show and convince them that their future is better with us than with the Taliban,” said MacDonald.

The bad news/The good news
The field research shows that many Afghans remain hostile towards the international community, unsure of its objectives, and are unaware of or untouched by international development efforts. Forty percent of those interviewed in the south believe the international forces are there to destroy Islam, or to occupy or destroy Afghanistan.

Sixty-one percent of respondents in Helmand and Kandahar believe the Afghan National Security Forces will be unable to provide post-transition security, revealing a worrying lack of confidence in the two key provinces in the ANSF’s ability to protect them once NATO-ISAF forces leave.

The news is not all bad: ICOS figures show several areas where the numbers, while remaining low, have improved. For example in June 2010, only 34% of interviewees in Helmand’s Marjah district thought that NATO-ISAF were winning the war, whereas in October, this figure has risen to 64%. In Nawa district, in June 2010 only 20% of interviewees thought recent military operations in their area had been good for the Afghan people, while in October 2010 this figure was 51%.

Managing negative blowback through positive impact
The report underlines the importance of making immediate positive impacts on the lives of ordinary Afghans to address the chronic poverty, food shortages, unemployment and displacement by conflict that mark the daily lives of many Afghans. “The military presence in the south by its very nature creates a negative impact. That negative blowback must be managed by dramatic positive impacts at the local level, before, during and after the military operations,” said Jorrit Kamminga, Director of Policy Research at ICOS.

A return of the Taliban means a return of Al Qaeda
Eighty-one percent of Afghans interviewed in the south also think that Al Qaeda would return to Afghanistan if the Taliban regained power, and 72% of southern interviewees believe Al Qaeda would use Afghanistan to launch attacks on the West if they returned.

Building the loyalty of the Afghan Security Forces
The research findings also indicate that 56% of the Afghans interviewed in the two southern provinces believe Afghan police are helping the Taliban and 25% of respondents believe that Afghan police end up joining the Taliban. Thirty-nine percent of those interviewed think that the Afghan National Army (ANA) are helping the Taliban and 30% think that ANA soldiers end up joining the Taliban. “Clearly the potential for the Afghan security forces to switch sides after being trained by NATO-ISAF constitutes an issue as transition plans move forward,” noted Kamminga. “Loyalties of the security forces trained by international forces may easily switch back to old allegiances as soon as we leave the country.”

Fifty-four percent of interviewees in the southern provinces would like to see the creation of ‘Pashtunistan’, an independent Pashtun state (which usually refers to incorporating Pashtun areas of both Afghanistan and Pakistan into a single ethnic state.)

Women’s role: the view from the south
Support for women from the men interviewed in the conservative provinces of Helmand and Kandahar is surprisingly high. Interviewee support for women voting is at 45%, while 44% of respondents in the south think women should have a greater role in government, and 45% believe that a greater role for women would improve the chances for peace in Afghanistan.

“There are legitimate concerns being expressed that the future of Afghan women will be left behind in the rush to transition. These numbers indicate that Afghan men in even the most conservative districts see the importance of involving women in building security and peace in Afghanistan,” commented MacDonald.

Tajik viewpoints
In the north of the country, interviews took place in Parwan and Panjshir provinces, and findings indicate some successes: 80% of Tajik interviewees believe that the central government is protecting their interests. “This figure indicates that there is political buy-in for the central government despite the issues with the Pashtun population,” said MacDonald.

On the negative side, only 30% of respondents in the north think that foreigners respect their religion and tradition. Interviewee opinions of the foreigners’ sensitivity towards local customs are low: in both the northern and southern areas, a majority of the interviewees feel that foreigners do not respect their religion and traditions.

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