Afghanistan - Spiritual Home of Taliban set to be next NATO-led target

Posted in Broader Middle East , Afghanistan | 29-Mar-10 | Author: Delancy Johansson

At a seminar arranged by the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, two on-the ground experts, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, give thorough insight and strategic considerations into the current situation in Kandahar, Southern Afghanistan, expected to be the next focus of NATO-led troops.

The Taliban formally stepped up to the plate to fight against a lack of security and injustice in 1994 when rape and crime were ripe in Kandahar. Friendships and networks made in the 1980s tied the knot then by pledging an oath to Mullah Omar in a white mosque in Kandahar. This ceremonial promise is very important for understanding the current loyalty displayed today by the 'old and bad' Taliban.

Kandahar is expected to be the next target precisely because it is said to be the spiritual home of the Taliban.

The situation right now in Kandahar is not promising. In response to Gen Stanley McChrystal and Major Gen Nick Carter's comments that Kandahar would be the next target for NATO-led forces following the current defensive in neighbouring Helmand province, Taliban suicide bombers displayed their discontent on March 13th 2010 in attacks that killed at least 35 people and injured 50.

In the past year and a half every major city landmark has been targeted with attacks, sometimes twice. Daily kidnappings and assassinations in turn instil fear that halts most movement within the city, especially at night. Thinking about tomorrow is not a luxury afforded to the people of Kandahar.

As a result, people are leaving or trying to leave Kandahar city, either to go to Quetta, Kabul or foreign countries and this is projected to continue for at least the next two years.

Corruption is the absolute there and is encountered in all aspects of daily life; even the price of a postal stamp is arbitrary.

The legal system is particularly corrupt which has led to an outburst of an alternative Taliban system because the locals perceive it as more understandable and time effective.

The Taliban is winning the propaganda war as they understand the local hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

The amount of boredom is hugely underrated; what happens when there are lots of bored young people combined with lots of weapons floating around?

Young people have one aspiration: to leave Kandahar, either by earning money as a construction contractor or by succeeding academically.

However, the money provided by donor agencies and countries for contractors indirectly feeds the insurgency being fought.

From these observations of the current situation, some key bottom-up considerations come directly from the voices on the ground in Kandahar and are necessary to initiate reconciliation. These are concrete proposals rooted in 'soft' factors of peacemaking that have the potential to lubricate the transition of NATO handing over Afghanistan to Afghans.

Communication must be improved.

Western forces are seen as utter aliens. There is extraordinarily little interaction between the locals and the military forces. People do not have an understanding of why they are there. Somehow the following straight forward message needs to be put across to the people: who the coalition forces are; why they are there; what they want. Rumours that the United States does not want to defeat the Taliban are widespread under the local reasoning of questioning how could the world's strongest army, along with the rest of the world's strongest armies, not defeat a few thousand men in the desert? Local perception is king and therefore the communication strategy must be greatly improved.

Gain accountability through effective expenditure of aid money.

Wars over Western-funded construction contracts are rife. Put simply, building teams are assassinating each other. It is a very easy and very accessible option. It costs $1000 to $5000 to take out a building team. An investment of this amount is a small price to pay to secure the $500,000 bid for a construction contract that Western aid donors often provide.

The problem is that donor agencies and countries often pay contractors for nothing being built, merely an 8 page report and some photographs.

Why is this happening? Because the people who sit with the budget have to spend the money, not reach certain targets. Donors need to sit down and determine strategy to meet priorities.

There is very poor monitoring and evaluation of reports on the side of the donors. And there is no system to track former contractors to assure that the donor agencies are not fooled twice. This in turn means that the local people do not take the donor agencies seriously as they are not spending money accountably.

Donor agencies and countries need to spend money responsibly in order to achieve intended results and, as a result, accountability in the eyes of the Afghan people would be gained. Aid expenditure should be followed through in person by a donor representative to ensure that the construction work happens. There are valid reasons for why this is not already happening, for instance lack of manpower, the places are difficult to get to and it is very dangerous. However, following-up on the aid provided is a worthy investment.

The issue of women's rights in Afghanistan requires the patience of the international community.

When the international community talks about women's rights in Afghanistan, notably right to education, access to finances and roles in society, it must be patient and realise that what is being talked about is a cultural shift. The view of women is an ingrained part of society, not a result of the Taliban. The conditions for women will change with time and education. At the moment, conditions for women are worse in the rural areas and better in the urban areas than in 2001.

Ethnic groups need to be included during negotiations.

In negotiations with the Taliban there needs to be clear outlines set by negotiating actors to ensure that ethnic groups are not sidelined as they will have existential fears.

For negotiations with the Taliban to be taken seriously, a Western standpoint needs to be established.

The international actors committed to efforts in Afghanistan need to come together and establish a single voice before negotiations with the Taliban can begin. Taliban leaders become incredibly confused and disheartened from having to repeat themselves to various representatives due to a lack of communication between international actors, whether it is regarding aid or development, or most importantly, negotiations.

Overall, it should be noted that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan until the groundwork has been dealt with. The current military efforts come with an absence of political strategy; there is no vision for the future. The military to date has been given the task of setting up the country in preparation for withdrawal, but there is no vision beyond that. We need a political solution. In order to successfully and timely set up Afghanistan for withdrawal, softer factors of peacemaking need to be valued as important as hard military power.

Because Kandahar is expected to be the next focus of coalition forces, it should also be the focus of efforts to establish softer factors for genuine conflict resolution. Only then can the coalition forces expect to see an open willingness of the Taliban to engage in negotiations, sealing preparations for withdrawal.