By Erica Gaston
Last week marked the ninth anniversary of the United States's invasion of Afghanistan, and the beginning of the 10th year of the current international engagement there. In the coming months, the US, Nato and its international allies will take a hard look at the current military counterinsurgency strategy, and the prospects for peaceful reconciliation. Both strategies are likely to be challenged by the absence of key ingredient to their success – Afghan trust in international efforts.
My organisation, the Open Society Foundations, recently asked 250 Afghans across Afghanistan who or what they thought was contributing to the escalation of conflict in Afghanistan, and, in particular, whom they blamed for the high civilian casualties and other civilian losses that have been such a flashpoint among the Afghan population.
Despite statistics suggesting insurgents are disproportionately responsible for civilian harm, our analysis found that Afghans blamed international forces as much, if not more, than insurgents. Few spoke warmly about the Taliban. But the vast majority described international forces as equally brutal toward civilians, and equally, if not more responsible for civilian casualties, detention abuses and other concerns.
They said international forces were often indiscriminate, and that many civilian deaths could have been prevented through better targeting, intelligence or coordination (pdf). "When an accident happens, or there is an attack against Nato troops, then Nato troops react and start firing on people. They never think about those around them as human. They think every person on the street is their enemy," said a man from western Herat province.
Most alleged more horrific stories of international forces shooting people point blank in front of their families, of kidnapping women and returning their dead bodies, or of firing on or abusing children. Many also accused international soldiers of giving weapons or supplies directly to the Taliban; transporting insurgents to peaceful areas, of international forces planting bombs or mines or paying suicide bombers and then blaming the Taliban.
Many Afghans said the fact that the insurgency was spreading despite the increase in troops made them doubt international intentions (pdf) in Afghanistan. "The international forces are not honestly trying to bring peace. In 2001 and 2002, they could eliminate all the Taliban in a week, but now there's only a handful and they don't seem to be able to get rid of them," a man from southern Kandahar province said.
Though many rumours and negative characterisations are intentionally spread by the Taliban, we heard these negative perceptions as much from relatively pro-western and educated urban populations as from those ethnicities and geographic areas least sympathetic to the Taliban movement and its propaganda (pdf).
Our analysis also suggested that while propaganda and bias against foreigners play an important role, these negative perceptions have spread so widely because they ring true with legitimate grievances against international forces. Insurgents looking to paint the international community in a bad light need look no further than the last nine years of civilian casualties, incidents of abuse, and harsh detention conditions – acts easily exaggerated due to the general lack of transparency or accountability of international forces to the Afghan public.
That these issues are a big obstacle to winning hearts and minds has certainly been recognised by western policymakers, and there have been significant policy reforms to address them – for example, tactical restrictions on airstrikes that risk civilian deaths. Yet, western military and civilian officials have tended to cherrypick the issues they are willing to change, while allowing other problematic behaviours to continue, to the effect that:
• Though airstrikes have been reduced, night-time house searches, which result in fewer deaths but often cause greater offence and community terror, have increased.
• Despite promises of "population protection", the strategy of pushing troops closer to Afghan villages in contested areas has made these areas much more dangerous for civilians due to increased insurgent suicide bombs and IEDs.
• Overall promises to stop abuse and stem corruption seem hypocritical when international forces and intelligence units continue to hire or subcontract out security support to unaccountable Afghan guards often affiliated with insurgents and criminals, and a track record of killing, kidnapping and extorting money from the population.
• Greater willingness to recognise civilian deaths in some instances are countered by continued foot-dragging and non-transparent investigations in many other incidents involving civilian harm, particularly where special forces or intelligence units are involved.
This deeply inconsistent approach to civilian protection has often contrasted with western rhetoric – which only makes Afghans doubt all the more western promises, and which undermines or negates positive changes of policy.
More than any metrics about insurgents captured or roads built, the gulf between Afghans and the international community is perhaps the most concerning red flag for the Nato mission in Afghanistan. For any resolution of the conflict to be sustainable, it must be brokered from a base of trust – something the international military and policy community currently do not have, given the record of the last nine years. Many Afghans see the international community, particularly the international military force, as an entity they are forced to interact with, rather than engage with as a trusted partner. This does not engender productive relationship where differences of view can be negotiated, but simply a jockeying for position among groups where the priorities are, first, immediate survival, and then, short-term power grabs.
The one positive finding from our research was that despite the negative attitudes towards the international community, most Afghans we spoke to still wanted international involvement in Afghanistan. They still supported the presence of foreign troops and continued international engagement in the country. This suggests that for all the missteps of the last nine years, there is still time to turn the situation around. But only if the international community can take measures to become the consistent and trusted partner Afghans expect them to be.