Whose Hearts and Minds?

A group of local children, from the Khowst region in Afghanistan, hold up Psychological Operations product information flyers promoting Afghanistan President Hamed Karzai

Notes from:

Big strategy founders on corruption and tribalism

Hearts, minds and the same old warlords

Go up close to what’s happening in Afghanistan – for example, in the city of Kandahar – and you find crime, corruption, tribal conflict and ordinary people powerless to resist the armed might of the militias. No happy ending is in sight

by Stephen Grey, Le Monde Diplomatique, 04 July 2010

[thanks to Jamil Hanifi for recommending this article]

Who supports the Taliban? Everyone. Even NATO understands this.

Sadly for the US, almost everyone supports the Taliban rebels. Even Nato commanders. A senior officer said: “If I was a young man, I’d be fighting with the Taliban.” In this heartland of the Pashtun people, the idea of being a stooge to foreigners or an unpopular Kabul government hardly appeals to the young unless there’s serious money involved. They ask themselves if they want to take the money and work with foreigners, or fight and risk a courageous death. Most people loathe those who work with the government.

NATO’s collaborators? The same old collaborators.

I met a professional man in his 50s, a generation that dominates the administration (they were in their 20s when the Russians were here). He has a long flowing beard. “That’s because he’s a communist,” said my Afghan companion. “The people that ISAF appoint, most of them are communists.” (ISAF is the International Security Assistance Force, the Nato mission in Afghanistan.) “They support Lenin and Marx?” “No, not at all, but they were the ones that collaborated with the Russians. We call them the communists.”

“They’re still in power?” “Yes, they like working with foreigners. They’re all communists. Many of them got educated in Russian too. We all despise them.”

“And the beard?” “Oh they do like their beards. They’re trying to cover up their past.”

Kandahar: The Taliban seem like the solution.

I asked Falaq Safi, a senior investigating prosecutor in the city who was the bigger threat to security, the militias or the Taliban? He answered: “It’s hard to say… Sometimes the threats are from the Taliban, but mostly they are from people whose own interests are being undermined. People are more afraid of the private militia and those who have illegal weapons.”

Hearing that sentiment, and often, makes it comprehensible why the Taliban seem like the solution. The movement was a born in a village just outside Kandahar and from people’s need to combat corruption, restore basic security and a cohesive government, and have rulers who obeyed moral and religious principles. They fought the same warlords who have now returned, and who rule with what appears to all as the blessing of the US.

The Americans’ Private Militias: Despised.

Militias are everywhere. Even the PRT and other Nato bases are guarded by militias.

A senior figure told us his nephew had just been recruited to work with the Americans, and had been allocated $36m to recruit militias round Kandahar province. “Of course he’s working with the warlords. They’re the ones who will supply all the people. He has to get involved with the worst kind of criminals.”

The talk at village meetings is what the Americans call the “local defence initiative” or LDI. The people call them militias.

Counterinsurgency (COIN): Death, repression, and candies.

What few have grasped is that the switch from an “enemy-focused” conventional military campaign to a “population-focused” counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign is not a soft option. The doctrine of COIN, emerging from Malaysia, Vietnam, Oman and central America, emphasises not only overt measures to win the hearts of the population. COIN also means security measures to control dissent and separate the population from the insurgents. It has meant massive forced migration, death squads and militias.

I hear sensible people talking of winning this war “one tribe at a time” with the use of irregular forces. Locals remember the Russians tried to use militias too, as they tried to prop up the last communist prime minister, Mohammad Najibullah. Whatever is done has to be done very carefully. The concern in Kandahar is that the creation of these forces, whatever the intentions, will mean handing back guns to the bad old warlords.

Murdering Local Officials: The CIA, Special Forces, and their local militias

We tried to find out about the most notorious crime committed by a militia in Kandahar, the murder in June 2009 of the chief of police, Matiullah Qateh. It was officially investigated by a prosecutor based in Kabul and that has provided rare clarity about a militia force known as the Kandahar Strike Force.

This is what we discovered: Qateh was gunned down in broad daylight along with other senior policemen, by a militia, based at the US Special Forces and CIA base known as Camp Gecko, around the former home of the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Omar. The militia had gone with US-supplied uniforms, weapons and vehicles to a local courthouse to try to force prosecutors to release one of their members from jail. 
Brigadier-General Ghulam Ranjbar, a senior military prosecutor in Kabul who investigated the case, told us he had issued an arrest warrant for a US Special Forces commander, known only to him as “John” or “Jonny”. He said all the militia members arrested after the killing had claimed Jonny sanctioned the raid to free their imprisoned comrade. (He did not suggest the Americans ordered or approved the killings, but said they were guilty of creating an outlaw unit and had refused to cooperate with his investigation.)

According to his investigation, and other witnesses in Kandahar, the militia from Camp Gecko could never have left the base in full uniform unless their mission had been approved. But a US spokesman said: “No US or coalition forces were involved in the attack; the guards were not acting on behalf of US or international forces.”

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