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 Apr. 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 programme in Afghanistan. A link to the report was first provided by the website Danger Room which reported the survey Apr. 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 Apr. 15 issue.
Klein accompanied U.S. Army Captain 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 dramatise 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 Defence 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.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service 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.