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Afghanistan: Should NATO Rethink Its Strategy In Fighting The Taliban?

A Canadian soldier, part of the NATO-led coalition, stands guard at a meeting of Afghan elders (file photo) (epa) NATO has thus far responded to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan with brute military force. There are signs, however, that this approach underestimates the complexity of the enemy, and reinforces the resentment Afghanistan's Pashtun communities feel against foreign domination. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spent a week in Afghanistan's restive south and files this report.

KANDAHAR, September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- To a man with a hammer all problems look like nails, the old saying goes. Faced with a determined foe in Afghanistan, NATO, the world's preeminent security organization, has done what it does best -- bringing overwhelming force to bear against its opponent.

But NATO has also formed a picture of its enemy which may owe more to its own preconceptions than the reality on the ground.

NATO officials like to portray insurgents in Afghanistan -- grouped under the name of the Taliban -- as a straightforward hierarchy in which Islamist zealots preside over opportunistic foot soldiers that they recruit using money, intimidation, or other means.

The "Tier One" zealots -- as they are known in NATO terminology -- provide the plan, the "Tier Two" foot soldiers carry it out.

Insurgent fighters might be locals who believe they are defending their livelihoods, are seeking redress for personal grievances, or are following the guidance of their mullahs and elders.

In an interview conducted at the Kandahar Airfield on September 12, the deputy commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Canadian Brigadier General Marquis Hainse, reiterated the traditional view: the Taliban can only be beaten by force.

"We are fully cognizant of the fact that the way the Taliban are recruiting some of their personnel, it's in some ways through terror and in some other ways it's trying to get them by giving them money -- quick money, so that they can survive" in the short term, Hainse said. "Our way to counter that is to confront the Taliban firmly at every occasion, to make those young people realize that regardless of how [much] money they give them, there is no future for them with that. The Taliban will not offer them a future; the Taliban, in the end, might just offer them more and more casualties."

Undercurrent Of Resentment

But there is evidence that the "Taliban" insurgency is a more complex phenomenon that needs a more nuanced approach. Its backbone appears to be a "Tier Three" type of fighter -- a local Pashtun with local grievances, ignorant of ISAF's true purpose. He has a two-way relationship with the higher ranks of the insurgents, who provide the money, equipment, and weapons, allowing the fighter to take out the resentment caused by an invasive and misunderstood Western military presence.

This is the view expressed by Hajji Gul, an elder in the Taliban-infested Dand district in Kandahar Province, in an interview on September 10.

Hajji Gul argues that the Taliban is essentially a flip side of the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun society. He says using force against it spawns resentment, and will lead to new recruits going to the Taliban.

"If you work with us, if you work with the government, if you work with the district and local people, [Taliban fighters] should never come to these districts, they should never destroy security here," he said. But "if you just bombard us, if you just fight the Taliban, the Taliban is going to increase in numbers. You should talk to the Taliban and make them happy."

Hajji Gul also criticizes the civilian fatalities that have sometimes accompanied ISAF operations. He extends his criticism to NATO's aggressive methods, its daily high-speed forays in armored convoys through local neighborhoods, which scare the locals and put their lives at risk. NATO says its cautionary measures are necessary for force protection.

Hajji Gul argues that NATO's aggressive methods "steer our people to go and connect with the Taliban." He says it is difficult to convince people under such circumstances that the foreigners in their country are here to rebuild, not to fight to "get the country in their hands."

My many conversations with Afghan National Army soldiers in the south reinforce the view that an overwhelming majority of the Taliban insurgents are not itinerant mercenaries, but members of local communities which, for some reason, resent the ISAF presence.

A Multilayered Conflict

In Oruzgan Province, which has seen heavy fighting in recent years, Dutch officer Captain Tjip "Chip" Prins told me there is no such thing as a single, uniform "Taliban."

"You cannot describe the Taliban as [just] 'the Taliban'" Prins said. "There is one form of Taliban being a local farmer wanting to settle a score with his neighbor; and on the other side of the entire spectrum is the Taliban commander actually believing in what he is doing and controlling a group of several other people."

Prins argues these "multiple layers" need to be addressed differently. He said more than half of the fighters are locals who believe they are defending their livelihoods, or are following guidance they receive from their mullahs and elders, reacting against corruption among local officials, or seeking redress for other local or personal grievances. He says ISAF must not use a "one size fits all" policy for all local problems.

Prins also says that whenever possible the Dutch contingent tries to talk to the locals and avoid resorting to violence.

In Helmand in February 2007, Estonian soldiers also said that their enemy "farms by day and fights by night."

Hajji Gul, the Dand elder, says that while foreign sources provide the resources, the motivation for much of the insurgency is wholly local -- and fuelled by NATO itself.

"The supplies, the equipment, the money, the vehicles are all coming from foreign countries -- I don't know which countries...[but] it might be Pakistan," he said. But at the same time, he continued, "NATO is also helping and assisting the Taliban because the Taliban are all from this area, all from Afghanistan, especially here in Dand district. The people who are destroying the security situation, they are all from Dand district."

Nonmilitary Security

There are people within ISAF who tend to take a sympathetic view of the sentiments expressed by local elders such as Hajji Gul. One is Nicholas Lunt, a spokesman for NATO's Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan, Ambassador Daan Everts.

Afghan National Army soldiers at the site of an attack in Kandahar (file photo)

In an interview in Kabul on September 8, Lunt indicated that ISAF should adopt a more discriminating approach to the security situation in the south of Afghanistan, and argued for a switch of focus from military means to a more effective police presence that would be more closely integrated with local communities.

"I think there's widespread recognition that while military force is important, security in the domestic sense is the critical issue facing Afghanistan at the moment. And that security is almost certainly going to be best delivered by police and nonmilitary security forces like border police," Lunt said.

However, the problem with relying on the police is that the service is both extremely underfunded and corrupt. Officials say corruption has permeated Afghanistan's entire Interior Ministry, implicating even the minister.

Lunt also agrees that Afghanistan will not be stable before all its major stakeholders feel their interests are represented. Like Hajji Gul, Lunt advocates direct negotiations with any insurgent leaders prepared to join the political process, within the constraints set by the Afghan Constitution.

Much will hinge on the outcome of the local elections, if and when they are held. Currently, the government in Kabul receives little if any feedback from the regions. The provincial governors are appointed directly by President Hamid Karzai, and their administrations remain weak and underfunded, contributing to a disconnect between the central government and district-level authorities in the restive southern provinces.

The Afghan Insurgency

The Afghan Insurgency

A U.S. military vehicle damaged by insurgents near Kandahar (epa)

HOMEGROWN OR IMPORTED? As attacks against Afghan and international forces continue relentlessly, RFE/RL hosted a briefing to discuss the nature of the Afghan insurgency. The discussion featured Marvin Weinbaum, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 83 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


RFE/RL's coverage of Afghanistan.


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