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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Marjah Offensive Aimed to Shape US Opinion on War

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

Washington – Senior military officials decided to launch the current U.S.-British military campaign to seize Marjah in large part to influence domestic U.S. opinion on the war in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported Monday.

The Post report, by Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock, both of whom cover military affairs, said the town of Marjah would not have been chosen as a target for a U.S. military operation had the criterion been military significance instead of impact on domestic public opinion.

The primary goal of the offensive, they write, is to “convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year long war….” U.S. military officials in Afghanistan “hope a large and loud victory in Marjah will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield,” according to Jaffe and Whitlock.

A second aim is said to be to demonstrate to Afghans that U.S. forces can protect them from the Taliban.

Despite the far-reaching political implications of the story, the Post buried it on page A9, suggesting that it was not viewed by editors as a major revelation.

Jaffe and Whitlock cite no official sources for the report, but the evidence supporting the main conclusion of the article clearly came from information supplied by military or civilian Pentagon sources. That suggests that officials provided the information on condition that it could not be attributed to any official source.

Some advisers to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told him last June that Kandahar City is far more important strategically than Marjah, according to Jaffe and Whitlock.

Marjah is a town of less than 50,000 people, even including the surrounding villages, according to researcher Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

That makes it about one-tenth the population of Kandahar City. Marjah is only one of a number of logistical centres used by the Taliban in Helmand province, as Dressler observed in a study of Helmand province published by the Institute last September.

Kandahar, on the other hand, is regarded as symbolically important as the place where the Taliban first arose and the location of its leadership organs even during the period of Taliban rule.

Nevertheless, McChrystal decided to commit 15,000 U.S. troops and Afghan troops to get control of Marjah as the first major operation under the new strategy of the Barack Obama administration.

That decision has puzzled many supporters of the war, such as author Steve Coll, who wrote a definitive history of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and is now executive director of the New America Foundation. Coll wrote in the New Yorker last week that he did not understand “why surging U.S. forces continue to invest their efforts and their numbers so heavily in Helmand.”

Coll pointed to the much greater importance of Kandahar in the larger strategic picture.

The real reason for the decision to attack Marjah, according to Jaffe and Whitlock, was not the intrinsic importance of the objective, but the belief that an operation to seize control of it could “deliver a quick military and political win for McChrystal.”

Choosing Kandahar as the objective of the first major operation under the new strategy would have meant waiting to resolve political rivalries in the province, according to the Post article.

In public comments in recent days, CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus has put forward themes that may be used to frame the Marjah operation and further offensives to come in Kandahar later this year.

Last Thursday, an unnamed “senior military official” told reporters, “This is the start point of a new strategy,” adding, “This is our first salvo.”

On Sunday, Petraeus appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said the flow of 30,000 new troops that President Obama recently ordered to the region is starting to produce “output”. Marjah is “just the initial operation of what will be a 12-to-18-month campaign,” he said, calling it the “initial salvo”.

Petraeus suggested that Taliban resistance to the offensive in Marjah was intense, as if to underline the importance of Marjah to Taliban strategy. “When we go on the offensive,” said Petraeus, “when we take away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and other extremist elements…they’re going to fight back.”
In fact, most of the Taliban fighters who had been in Marjah before the beginning of the operation apparently moved out of the town before the fighting started.

Petraeus seemed to be laying the basis for presenting Marjah as a pivotal battle as well as a successful model for the kind of operations to follow.

The Post article implies that Petraeus and McChrystal are concerned that the Obama administration is pushing for a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces after mid-2011. The military believes, according to Jaffe and Whitlock, that a public perception of U.S. military success “would almost certainly mean a slower drawdown.”

As top commander in Iraq in 2007-2008, Petraeus established a new model for reestablishing public support for a war after it had declined precipitously. Through constant briefings to journalists and Congressional delegations, he and his staff convinced political elites and public opinion that his counterinsurgency plan had been responsible for the reduction in insurgent activities that occurred during this command.

Evidence from unofficial sources indicates, however, that the dynamics of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict and Shi’a politics were far more important than U.S. military operations in producing that result.

McChrystal himself seemed to be hinting at the importance of the Marjah offensive’s potential impact on the domestic politics of the war in remarks he made in Istanbul just before it began.

“This is all a war of perceptions,” McChrystal said. “This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”

McChrystal went on to include U.S. citizens as well as Afghans among those who needed to be convinced. “Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this,” he said.

The decision to launch a military campaign primarily to shape public opinion is not unprecedented in U.S. military history.

When President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger launched a major bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese capital in late December 1972, they were consciously seeking to influence public opinion to view their policy as much tougher in the final phase of peace negotiations with Hanoi.

The combination of the heavy damage to Hanoi and the administration’s heavy spin about its military pressure on the North Vietnamese contributed to broad acceptance of the later conclusion that Kissinger had gotten a better agreement in Paris in February 1973.

In fact, Kissinger had compromised on all the demands he had made before the bombing began. But the public perception was more important to the Nixon White House.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

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