Despite Positive Poll Results, Afghanistan Heads Toward Violence

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 19

Afghanistan is eternally a land of contradictions. From fiery deserts in the south, to vast, frigid and towering mountain ranges in the north, the country’s topography and climate act as competing nightmares for civil and military planners and logisticians. The country has a population that is terminally fractious and disunited by tribe, language, sect and ethnicity, until it is rallied by the presence of foreign armed forces. The poverty-stricken land is rife with weaponry, mainly outdated small arms from various manufacturers, and yet it boasts a history of defeating state-of-the-art military empires from the time of Alexander forward.

Today, we find an Afghan people who Western pollsters find overwhelmingly supportive of President Hamid Karzai’s government and the 50,000 Western troops that are its main support, but many are also actively supporting an insurgency aimed at destroying the Karzai regime and forcing the evacuation of U.S. and NATO forces. A countrywide poll taken in late 2006 by ABC and BBC showed that “Afghans remain decisively upbeat about both their government and the presence of international forces” (New Republic, June 11). President Karzai was supported by 68 percent of respondents; 88 percent were pleased by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion; 74 percent had a positive view of the United States; and 80 percent of respondents wanted foreign military forces to stay in Afghanistan (New Republic, June 11). Yet, only a few months into 2007, a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found nothing but impending disaster for both Karzai and the U.S.-led coalition. Five years after the U.S.-led invasion, the GAO report claimed that Afghan security “has not improved, and, moreover, has deteriorated significantly in the last year.” That finding was underscored on June 17 when a bomb attack destroyed a police academy bus in Kabul, killing 35 people—22 of them police instructors—and wounding many more (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, June 18). The Taliban-claimed attack brought the total of Afghan military, police and intelligence officials killed so far in 2007 to 307 (St. Petersburg Times, June 9; Associated Press, June 17). How can one explain the contradiction between the positive public opinion elicited by pollsters and the increasingly lethal actions being taken against the targets that the poll showed to be subjects of the public’s esteem? While polling in developing countries is always a precarious proposition, even a 15-point margin of error in the ABC-BBC poll noted above would still yield very comforting news for the Karzai government and U.S.-NATO commanders.

Perhaps the best explanation would argue that the contradiction forms two sides of a single coin. On the obverse, the pollsters’ findings reflect the hopes of a population weary and impoverished by 30 years of incessant warfare, and on the reverse is the hard-headed and fatalistic nature of the Afghan character that sees the growing insurgency as an alternative to an Afghan government in Kabul that appears unrepresentative, corrupt and unable to provide security, and a foreign military occupation that has delivered neither security nor reconstruction and has overstayed its welcome.

Nearly six years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, President Karzai fully controls only Kabul and limited pockets of territory throughout the country; the Western media have at times portrayed small but non-repeatable local success stories in Afghanistan—such as the naming of female officials or the opening of secular schools—as nationwide trends or even turning-of-the-tide events. Yet, as noted above, the Taliban’s attacks are radiating out of its southern homeland and occurring in many parts of the country—even in Kabul—with Karzai’s forces unable to eliminate the threat. Furthermore, the GAO has reported that despite the $6 billion Washington spent on training in 2006, no Afghan army or police unit is at present fully capable of operating alone and only one of 72 police units is competent to lead a counter-terrorism operation (St. Petersburg Times, June 9).

Afghans have also come to view Karzai and his ministers as corrupt and unable to command the respect and obedience of U.S.-led forces. The GAO report concluded that the regime was engaged in “systemic [financial] corruption,” and there is a widespread popular belief that billions of dollars in Western-provided reconstruction aid has been siphoned off to senior Afghan officials. In addition, the Western media has repeatedly reported that outside Kabul the central government’s penal system is “non-functioning” and that local regime officials often behave more as bandits or warlords than as government representatives (St. Petersburg Times, June 9). For many Afghans, according to the veteran Afghan-hand Philip Smucker, the regime’s police units “have become something that people fear. [The police have] become synonymous with crime in the public mind” (Asia Times, May 31).

More detrimental to Karzai and his lieutenants than charges of corruption and criminality, however, is the apparently dominant belief among Afghans that these men are not masters of their own house. This is a devastating judgment in a society that prizes strongly masculine leaders able to “make heads roll” until they attain what they want and what the country needs. This perception is based directly on what has been described as the “incessant coalition attacks on civilian localities across the country,” attacks that Karzai has repeatedly condemned and requested his Western allies to halt (Khaleej Times, June 9; al-Jazeera, May 15). The continued killing of Afghan civilians during U.S. and NATO military operations—seven Afghan children were killed in a NATO air strike on June 18—makes Karzai appear impotent to Afghans because he is unable to use his presidential powers to control his allies and protect the citizenry (al-Manar, June 18; al-Jazeera, June 18). Indeed, some members of the Afghan parliament are now calling for negotiations and compromise with the Taliban as a means of reducing the need for casualty-causing Western military operations.

Western forces are not, of course, deliberately killing civilians, and many of the civilian casualties almost certainly result from the paucity of ground forces available to U.S. and NATO commanders and their resulting need to battle the Taliban by relying on the less discriminating force provided by airpower. Nonetheless, according to Mustafa Alami, the director of Security and Terrorism Studies at Dubai’s Gulf Research Center, Afghans had anticipated that Western forces would use their superior discipline and technological prowess to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda with few civilian losses, but because this has not happened, “generally people believe that the deaths of civilians at the hands of Americans is intentional” (Associated Press, June 17).

Beyond popular perceptions of the Karzai government’s incompetence and corruption, the country’s near-complete lack of law and order, and unavoidable civilian deaths in wartime, the discrepancy between poll results and actions on the ground may be best explained by a historical reality. For over two millennia, Afghans have reacted poorly to foreign occupation, and their animosity has increased in tandem with the occupation’s duration. Western forces have now been resident for nearly six years, and resentment is rising not only in the Taliban’s bastion in southern Afghanistan, but also in areas where the Taliban not only has little presence, but where it has heretofore been opposed. In recent months, for example, anti-regime and anti-coalition attacks have occurred in the northeastern province of Parwan—where the Northern Alliance predominates; the Tajik-dominated and previously anti-Taliban provinces of Herat and Farah in western Afghanistan; and in Kabul province, from where, although Taliban adherents have historically been few, the June 17 bomber in Kabul reportedly came (Khaleej Times, June 9; Associated Press, June 8).

Overall, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan forces a predictive assessment to move in a much less favorable direction than that which the ABC-BBC poll results suggest. While hoping for the best from Karzai and the West, Afghans appear increasingly prepared to fend for themselves by resisting the “repressive regime [in Kabul] marred with corruption, insecurity, and warlords,” and by taking up arms against the foreign occupation (Khaleej Times, June 9). “I speak against the occupying forces and the Iranian intervention [in Afghanistan at] every Friday sermon,” explains al-Hajj Farooq Hussaini, a Sunni cleric and the right-hand man of Ismail Khan, a Tajik who is a former anti-Soviet mujahideen chief, the ex-governor of Herat and now Karzai’s minister of energy. “I have been intimidated several times by UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan] and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], but I am not scared at all. All the prayer leaders of Herat are strongly behind me…Whether it is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or the Taliban, whoever fights against occupation forces, I support them” (Asia Times, June 14).

Hussaini’s efforts to increase anti-foreign cooperation among Tajiks and Pashtuns, as well as among eastern Afghans (Hekmatyar) and western Afghans (Ismail Khan), reflect what the media is reporting about the rising tempo of the insurgency across the country. More importantly, it mirrors the predictable historical anomaly of a tenuous but effective national unity that has arisen each time Afghanistan has been invaded and occupied, be it by Greeks, Britons, Russians or, now, Americans. Sadly, Afghans seem to be moving away from the hopes that fueled their late-2006 poll responses and toward the arms that the country’s history shows have always been their only salvation from foreign invaders.