Several years ago President Hamid Karzai likened balancing Afghanistan’s various internal pressures and the demands of external allies and foes with walking while holding a fragile dish. With no end in sight to the U.S.-led war now in its 10th year, he must feel as if he is juggling the entire dinner service.
For years Karzai has said that peace talks with the insurgents was key to the solution of the Afghan conflict and termed them as a priority since last year, but he also has to take on board the frequently conflicting interests of all the players.
Many in the West think they can bash or label the Taliban movement as “extremists”, “fundamentalist”, “Islamists” and “terrorists”.
They may disagree if an Afghan argues that whatever you say, at least the Taliban were not hypocrites, changing their public ideologies like some of the former warlords who sided with Washington in overthrowing the Taliban government nine years ago.
The man outside the Kabulbank branch in the capital seemed believable, his voice full of doubt when he spoke about the Afghan government’s repeated assurances that his savings, held by the country’s largest private bank, were safe.
The government, after all, said that it vouched for “every penny”, even though the bank’s top two directors had stepped down amid media allegations of corruption last week.
KABUL (Reuters) – As the conflict in Afghanistan deepens, with more foreign troops fighting and casualty tolls rising against a bolder Taliban-led enemy, a parallel battle is being fought to win the hearts and minds of Afghans.
Despite vast, sophisticated resources at their disposal, it is a battle some analysts fear NATO and U.S. forces can’t win.
KABUL, Aug 30 (Reuters) – As the conflict in Afghanistan deepens, with more foreign troops fighting and casualty tolls rising against a bolder Taliban-led enemy, a parallel battle is being fought to win the hearts and minds of Afghans.
Despite vast, sophisticated resources at their disposal, it is a battle some analysts fear NATO and U.S. forces can’t win.
"In my opinion NATO is making a monumental mistake," said Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir.
"No matter what policy NATO might adopt, they are losing the trust and respect of the Afghan population because Afghans consider the Taliban the winners of this war," he told Reuters.
That view was supported by a July poll by the Kabul-based International Council on Security and Development that showed the NATO force was failing to win hearts and minds and that most Afghans in Taliban heartlands viewed foreign troops negatively.
Since taking command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June, General David Petraeus, the master of counter-insurgency tactics honed in Iraq, has stressed that the key battleground in Afghanistan will be what he calls "the human terrain".
Many U.S. military officials feel the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) must do better at heading off Taliban propaganda by speaking directly to Afghans, seeing such "strategic communications" as part of the larger war effort.
It is no coincidence that, since Petraeus took over, media outlets have been flooded with media releases every day, many more than ever before, detailing the successes of Afghan and foreign forces and the perfidy of the Taliban-led insurgents.
KILLING CIVILIANS "NOT GOOD POLICY"
ISAF sent more than 20 media releases on Sunday from their 24-hour-a-day media unit.
One release, about two Afghans wounded by a roadside bomb in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, quoted U.S. Army Colonel Rafel Torres as saying: "The insurgents are as indiscriminate as their choice of weapons. Killing innocent civilians isn’t good policy in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter."
No doubt these are fairly straightforward counter-insurgency tactics but, analysts say, what is interesting is that the Taliban have been doing the same for much longer.
On Sunday, the Taliban went so far as to suggest holding a news conference to counter Petraeus’ assertion last week that his forces were making progress, an unprecedented move since the Islamists were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
It was their second media release in four days, somewhat unusual for a group which banned television and computers during their rule from 1996-2001.
The Taliban’s tactics have not gone unnoticed by ISAF.
"One way of tackling this issue is to undermine the Taliban’s influence in society," said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for global intelligence firm STRATFOR.
"The key to this is to try and drive a wedge between the Afghan jihadist movement and their social support network."
Earlier this month, ISAF issued an extraordinary media release in which an unidentified "senior ISAF intelligence official" denounced the Taliban’s "attempt to manipulate the media in order to misrepresent the truth".
The official said the Taliban used a "formalised network", overseen by Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself, and which included spokesmen who usually give names like Yousuf Ahmadi and Zabihullah Mujahid.
Those spokesmen, he said, worked directly with "external malign media support, which is largely comprised of sympathetic media outlets".
The Taliban usually communicate by telephone, their spokesmen calling reporters from undisclosed locations.
They are quick to claim credit for attacks on foreign forces, whether they were involved or not, and usually inflate casualty figures. They are equally quick in their attempts to discredit foreign troops when civilian casualties are involved.
Regardless of how untrue that information might be, analysts say there is little Western forces can do to counter it.
"There is only so much that they can do to improve their standing among the public because of certain structural problems, the key to which is the perception that Western forces won’t be in the country for long," Bokhari said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here) (firstname.lastname@example.org; Kabul Newsroom, +93 706 011 526) (If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to email@example.com)
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan, believed to be sitting on top of billions of dollars worth of minerals and energy sources, has extracted oil for the first time and plans to pump a modest 800 barrels a day, officials said on Thursday.
Afghanistan’s Mines Ministry plans to open bidding soon for contracts to refine the oil from the rugged Sar-i-Pul province in the north.
KABUL (Reuters) – Imagine an election where candidates are unable to campaign in their own electorates, too scared even to hang their pictures outside campaign offices.
Welcome to Afghanistan.
“An election without security means nothing,” says Fazlullah Mojadidi, a lawmaker from the capital, Kabul, who is seeking re-election in Afghanistan’s September 18 parliamentary poll.
KABUL (Reuters) – Authorities in Afghanistan, which holds elections next month, have started removing road blockades set up in Kabul to guard against attacks by the Taliban and other insurgents.
With parliamentary polls on September 18, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been anxious to assert his independence from Western backers and has set an ambitious timetable for Afghans to take complete security responsibility by 2014.
KABUL (Reuters) – Archaeologists in Afghanistan, where Taliban Islamists are fighting the Western-backed government, have uncovered Buddhist-era remains in an area south of Kabul, an official said on Tuesday.
“There is a temple, stupas, beautiful rooms, big and small statues, two with the length of seven and nine meters, colorful frescos ornamented with gold and some coins,” said Mohammad Nader Rasouli, head of the Afghan Archaeological Department.
KABUL, Aug 15 (Reuters) – Total foreign military deaths in Afghanistan have passed 2,000 since the war began in late 2001, unofficial tallies showed on Sunday, in the approach to U.S. and Afghan elections and a U.S. strategy review.
The U.S. military accounted for more than 60 percent of the deaths but the total still lags the list of Afghan civilian casualties, which a U.N. report last week showed had risen sharply despite a drop in the number blamed on foreign troops.
The deaths of at least one more U.S. service member, an Australian and a Briton announced in the past two days have pushed the total of foreign military deaths to 2,002 since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition.
The total is less than half that suffered during the seven years of the Iraq war but is a significant milestone nonetheless, with NATO allies like the Netherlands pulling out of the alliance and others reviewing their future roles.
U.S. President Barack Obama has promised a strategy review in December after November mid-term Congressional elections where his Democrats face a backlash from an increasingly sceptical public.
Afghans also face parliamentary elections on Sept. 18. A presidential ballot a year ago was marred by fraud.
For more on Afghanistan click [ID:nAFPAK]
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under pressure to show independence from his Western backers and this week asked Obama for a review of how the war is being conducted. [ID:nSGE67D01E]
Violence has hit its worst levels since the Taliban were toppled despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, with the insurgency spilling out of Taliban strongholds in the south and east into the north and west.
U.S. Army General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said on Sunday he saw areas of progress but meeting Obama’s goal of starting to withdraw troops by July 2011 would depend on conditions at the time. [ID:nN15246496]
He described the battle against the Taliban as an "up and down process" and said it was premature to assess its success.
"What we have are areas of progress. We’ve got to link those together, extend them," Petraeus said in an interview aired on Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press" programme.
Petraeus, who replaced the sacked General Stanley McChrystal in June, said he would give his "best professional military advice" to Obama about the withdrawal timetable.
Obama, who has boosted U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, plans a strategy review in December after the mid-term elections. Congress supported his troop surge but polls show the U.S. public remains uncertain about the effort.
At the same time, U.S. commanders have warned of a tougher fight ahead as troops take on the Taliban in their southern strongholds and confront other insurgents like the al-Qaeda linked Haqqani network in the east.
Leaders in Washington have also sought to lower expectations of what can be achieved.
Disputes over the Afghan war have already brought down a Dutch government in February and a German president in May.
According to www.iCasualties.org, an independent website that monitors foreign troop deaths, 2002 troops have been killed since 2001, 1,226 of them Americans. British losses total 331, with the remaining 445 shared among the other 44 coalition partners.
Its figures were matched by a tally kept by Reuters.
June 2010 was the bloodiest month of the war with 102 killed as foreign forces pushed ahead with operations in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Another 88 were killed in July, with the total for the year so far standing at 434, according to iCasualties, fast approaching 2009’s 521.
The losses in Afghanistan are less than half of those in the Iraq war, where at least 4,723 foreign troops have been killed since 2003, 4,405 of them American.
But, with Washington dramatically cutting troop numbers in Iraq before the formal end of combat operations on Aug. 31, attention is certain to be focused back on the Afghan conflict.
Just as was the case in Iraq, civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict in Afghanistan.
A U.N. mid-year report last week showed civilian casualties had risen by 31 percent over the first six months of 2010, compared with the same period last year. That figure included 1,271 killed. [ID:nSGE6790D8]
Civilian casualties caused by U.S. and other foreign forces have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers and led to a major falling-out between the two sides last year.
It also resulted in two tightenings of tactical directives, first by McChrystal and then by Petraeus in June, limiting the use of aerial strikes and house searches.
The U.N. report said Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 76 percent of casualties.
Deaths caused by "pro-government forces" fell to 12 percent of the total from 30 percent last year, due mainly to a 64 percent fall in deaths caused by aerial attacks.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Ralph Boulton)