Kandaharis Want Peace Talks

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

2010-05-05T121705Z_1095639419_GM1E6551KBZ01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

Afghan women clad in burqas and a child receive food aid in Kabul May 5, 2010. The Afghan Ministry of Defense distributed food aid such as wheat, cooking oil, sugar and beans to 220 poor families.

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

An opinion survey of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province funded by the U.S. Army has revealed that 94 percent of respondents support negotiating with the Taliban over military confrontation with the insurgent group and 85 percent regard the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers.”

The survey, conducted by a private U.S. contractor last December, covered Kandahar City and other districts in the province into which Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is planning to introduce more troops in the biggest operation of the entire war. Those districts include Arghandab, Zhari, rural Kandahar, and Panjwayi.

Afghan interviewers conducted the survey only in areas which were not under Taliban control.

The decisive rejection of the use of foreign troops against the Taliban by the population in Kandahar casts further doubt on the fundamental premise of the Kandahar campaign, scheduled to begin in June, that the population and tribal elders in those districts would welcome a U.S.-NATO troop presence to expel the Taliban.

That assumption was dealt a serious blow at a meeting on April 4 at which tribal elders from all over Kandahar told President Hamid Karzai they were not happy with the planned military operation.

An unclassified report on the opinion survey was published in March by Glevum Associates, a Washington-based “strategic communications” company under contract for the Human Terrain Systems program in Afghanistan. A link to the report was first provided by the Web site Danger Room which reported the survey April 16.

Ninety-one percent of the respondents supported the convening of a “Loya Jirga,” or “grand assembly” of leaders as a way of ending the conflict, with 54 percent “strongly” supporting it, and 37 percent “somewhat” supporting it. That figure appears to reflect support for President Karzai’s proposal for a “peace Jirga” in which the Taliban would be invited to participate.

The degree to which the population in the districts where McChrystal plans to send troops rejects military confrontation and believes in a peaceful negotiated settlement is suggested by a revealing vignette recounted by Time magazine’s Joe Klein in the April 15 issue.

Klein accompanied U.S. Army Capt. Jeremiah Ellis when he visited a 17-year-old boy in Zhari district whose house Ellis wanted to use an observation post. When Ellis asked the boy how he thought the war would end, he answered, “Whenever you guys get out from here, things will get better.”

“The elders will sit down with the Taliban, and the Taliban will lay down their arms.”

The Kandahar offensive seems likely to dramatize the contrast between the U.S. insistence on a military approach to the Taliban control of large parts of southern Afghanistan and the overwhelming preference of the Pashtun population for initiating peace negotiations with the Taliban as Karzai has proposed.

Ironically, highlighting that contradiction in the coming months could encourage President Barack Obama to support Karzai’s effort to begin negotiations with the Taliban now rather than waiting until mid-2011, as the U.S. military has been advocating since last December.

Obama told a meeting of his “war cabinet” last month that it might be time to start negotiations with the Taliban, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have opposed any move toward negotiations until Gen. McChrystal is able to demonstrate clear success in weakening the Taliban.

The Taliban ruling council has taken advantage of the recent evidence of contradictions between Pashtuns in Kandahar and the U.S. military over the Kandahar offensive by signaling in an interview with the Sunday Times of London that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is prepared to engage in “sincere and honest” talks.

In a meeting in an unidentified Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan reported Sunday, two Taliban officials told the newspaper that Omar’s aims were now limited to the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners, and the restoration of security. It was the first major signal of interest in negotiations since the arrest of Mullah Omar’s second in command, Mullah Baradar, in late January.

The report of the Glevum survey revealed that more people in Kandahar regard checkpoints maintained by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) and ANA and ANP vehicles as the biggest threat to their security while traveling than identified either Taliban roadside bombs or Taliban checkpoints as the main threat.

Fifty-eight percent of the respondents in the survey said the biggest threat to their security while traveling were the ANA and ANP checkpoints on the road, and 56 percent said ANA/ANP vehicles were the biggest threat. Only 44 percent identified roadside bombs as the biggest threat – the same percentage of respondents who regard convoys of the International Security Assistance Force – the NATO command under Gen. McChrystal – as the primary threat to their security.

Only 37 percent of the respondents regarded Taliban checkpoints as the main threat to their security.

In Kandahar City, the main target of the coming U.S. military offensive in Kandahar, the gap between perceptions of threats to travel security from government forces and from the Taliban is even wider.

Sixty-five percent of the respondents in Kandahar City said they regard ANA/ANP checkpoints as the main threat to their security, whereas roadside bombs are the main problem for 42 percent of the respondents.

The survey supports the U.S. military’s suspicion that the transgressions of local officials of the Afghan government, who are linked mainly to President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar province council and the main warlord in the province, have pushed the population into the arms of the Taliban.

An overwhelming 84 percent of the respondents agreed that corruption is the main cause of the conflict, and two-thirds agreed that government corruption “makes us look elsewhere.” That language used in the questionnaire was obviously intended to allow respondents to hint that they were supporting the Taliban insurgents in response to the corruption, without saying so explicitly.

More than half the respondents (53 percent) endorsed the statement that the Taliban are “incorruptible.”

“Corruption” is a term that is often understood to include not only demands for payments for services and passage through checkpoints but violence by police against innocent civilians.

The form of government corruption that has been exploited most successfully by the Taliban in Kandahar is the threat to destroy opium crops if the farmers do not pay a large bribe. The survey did not ask any questions about opium growing and Afghan attitudes toward the government and the Taliban, although that was one of the key questions that Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the head of intelligence for Gen. McChrystal, had sought clarification of.

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NATO Seeks Russian Help in Afghanistan

October 8, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By David Brunnstrom

2009-10-07T135141Z_148940011_GM1E5A71OQP01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan man heads home at the end of a day’s work in Kabul October 7, 2009.

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO urged Russia on Wednesday to expand its role in Afghanistan, including by equipping and training Afghan security forces fighting the Taliban.

While reiterating a call on European allies to step up their commitments in the country as the United States weighs a further boost in forces, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was also in Russia’s interests to do more.

He said agreements allowing transit of military supplies to Afghanistan via Russia could be expanded.

“Next, Russia could provide equipment for the Afghan security forces. Thirdly, Russia could provide training. These are just some examples. I think we should explore in a joint effort how we could further Russian engagement,” Rasmussen said.

“I know from the Russians that they are interested in a stronger engagement and we have to find ways and means because basically Afghanistan is one of the areas in which we share interests with Russia,” he told a monthly news conference.

Russia has said it fully backs U.S.-led efforts against the Taliban although it would not send its own soldiers to fight in the country where Moscow lost a 10-year war in the 1980s.

Rasmussen said he was pleased by the improvement in relations between NATO and Russia since a freeze imposed by the alliance after last year’s war between Georgia and Russia, even if there were still “fundamental areas on which we disagree.”

“But we can create a web of cooperation that is strong enough to survive these differences. We have to make NATO-Russia cooperation too good to lose,” he said.

EU CHIDED ON POLICE TRAINING

Rasmussen again called on European NATO allies to step up commitments in Afghanistan, chiding them for failing to provide all the 400 police trainers they had promised. “It is a bit embarrassing,” he said. “I would encourage all members of the European Union to do their utmost to ensure full deployment.”

Rasmussen urged the Netherlands to reconsider plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, asking them to stay and help train Afghan forces.

“I would regret a Dutch withdrawal,” he said. “We are at a critical juncture, where there should be no doubt about our firm commitment. Any such doubts will simply play into the hands of those who want us to fail … we need all allies contributing.”

Rasmussen said it was essential there was a fair balance between the contributions of the United States and its partners, and for that non-U.S. allies needed to do more. He said this was important not just for Afghanistan but for the future of NATO.

“I am afraid many in the U.S. will wonder about Europe as a real partner in security,” he said. “That would be damaging over the long term for NATO and the transatlantic relationship.”

NATO is looking to an expanded effort to beef up the Afghan police and army as the route to eventual withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan, where they have been since toppling the Taliban after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

There are more than 100,000 foreign troops in the country, but they have struggled to contain a widening Islamist insurgency while mounting casualties have made the mission increasingly unpopular with Western public opinion.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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Karzai Defends Afghanistan Election

September 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Maria Golovnina, Reuters

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An Afghan man rides on his donkey-cart past a poster of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul September 9, 2009. Afghan election returns on Tuesday put Karzai on course for a first-round victory, but a watchdog that can veto the outcome said it had found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" and ordered a partial recount.

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

KABUL (Reuters) – Incumbent Hamid Karzai defended last month’s Afghan presidential election as honest on Wednesday, a day after returns showed him on course to win in a single round and a U.N-backed panel ordered a partial recount.

The standoff has alarmed Western leaders who have risked their own political capital to send troops on what is becoming an increasingly unpopular mission.

Preliminary election results issued on Tuesday gave Karzai more than 54 percent of valid votes tallied, putting him above the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with his closest rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

But the independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), appointed mainly by the United Nations, said it had found “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud and ordered a partial recount.

On Wednesday, Karzai praised the conduct of the vote.

“The president praised the (election officials) for holding the election with honesty and impartiality despite all the difficulties,” the presidential palace said in a statement.

Abdullah says Karzai’s backers have attempted to steal the August 20 election by stuffing ballots on a massive scale.

Early vote tables, which have been removed from the election commission’s website without explanation, showed whole villages in which Karzai received every single ballot cast, sometimes with exactly 400 or 500 votes.

For now, Western officials have put their confidence in the watchdog ECC, which can overturn the result and must sign off on the outcome before it is final.

Diplomats say they are uneasy but resigned to the possibility of the U.N.-backed body reversing a result released by Afghanistan’s own election authorities.

The West originally hailed the vote as a success, largely because the Taliban failed to disrupt it. Those assessments have became increasingly muted as evidence of fraud has mounted.

In central Kabul, hundreds of people gathered to mourn the death of Tajik anti-Taliban hero Ahmed Shah Masood who was killed on September 9, 2001, by al-Qaeda — a crucial rallying day for half-Tajik Abdullah who was part of Masood’s inner circle.

Addressing the rally, Abdullah made no direct mention of the election but played up his link to the iconic commander.

“Masood fought for this country and died for this country,” said Abdullah, whose supporters have threatened to hold protests if their election concerns were not heard. “He fought to bring peace and security to this country.”

Speaking alongside Abdullah in a city festooned with Masood posters, ex-president and key ally Burhanuddin Rabbani added: “The election result must be cleaned or Afghanistan will face chaos and big challenges.”

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who draws much of his support from his ethnic heartland, did not attend the ceremony.

Locking Afghanistan into a further period of uncertainty, the ECC ordered Afghan officials to recount results from polling stations where one candidate received more than 95% of the vote or more votes were cast than the expected maximum of 600.

Election officials say that could take weeks or even months. British ambassador to Afghanistan Mark Sedwill said it was too early to judge the authenticity of the vote before the ECC had finished its process of screening ballots for fraud.

“We have to see the result of their investigations,” he told BBC radio. “We always knew there would be fraud in this election, a lot of irregularities, I’m afraid that was inevitable, and we talked about that before the election.”

Facing an increasingly skeptical public opinion over its role in Afghanistan, Britain on Wednesday offered to host a global conference to set targets for handing over security commitments from foreign troops to Afghan forces.

Raid frees reporter

Before dawn, NATO troops stormed a Taliban hideout in the north of the country to release New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell of Britain and his Afghan colleague Mohammad Sultan Munadi who were kidnapped by insurgents at the end of last week.

Farrell was freed but Munadi was killed in the rescue, along with a British soldier and at least one civilian.

The two had been headed to cover the aftermath of a NATO air strike called in by German troops that killed scores of people. The strike took place in an area controlled by the Taliban and fueled anger among its mainly Pashtun local people.

NATO has confirmed that some civilians may have been killed and ordered a formal investigation into the air strike — the deadliest incident involving German troops since World War Two.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL, Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ, and Avril Ormsby in LONDON; Writing by Maria Golovnina)

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