Afghan men ‘mistrust’ foreign troops
Survey says many think NATO forces are occupiers intending to harm Islam
An unusual new survey in southern Afghanistan suggests that NATO’s eight-year campaign to win hearts and minds in the embattled region is in serious trouble.
Field researchers with the International Council on Security and Development, a policy think tank with an office in Afghanistan, last month interviewed 532 men in mostly rural parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
The survey found that a significant majority (70 per cent) of southern Afghans felt military operations were bad for the Afghan people and that NATO forces did not protect the local population. Many (75 per cent) said the foreigners did not respect their religion and traditions; a similar number (74 per cent) believed it was “wrong” to work with international forces. Most (59 per cent) opposed a new military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar.
“These results are troubling and demonstrate the mistrust and resentment felt towards the international presence in Afghanistan,” concludes the council’s report entitled, Afghanistan: The Relationship Gap, published Friday.
The opinion survey was conducted as 30,000 U.S. troops “surge” into southern Afghanistan, which has been the scene of heavy fighting between Taliban and NATO forces.
Since 2002, 150 Canadian soldiers have died serving in Afghanistan, most of them in Kandahar province.
It is estimated that the military mission could cost Canadian taxpayers $18.1 billion by the time it concludes in 2011.
Norine MacDonald, president and lead researcher with the International Council on Security and Development, said the survey highlights the communication gap that exists between NATO forces and the Afghan communities they’ve been deployed to protect.
The survey found that most Afghans thought foreign forces were in the country to occupy or destroy it (44 per cent) or to harm Islam (12 per cent).
“We are failing to explain ourselves or our objectives to the Afghan people,” said MacDonald, a Canadian lawyer who has worked in Kandahar for much of the past five years. “There’s a lot of disinformation about why we’re there and who we are.” Those failings, MacDonald said in a telephone interview Friday, have allowed the Taliban to sow its anti-Western propaganda.
Research teams with the international think tank put 50 questions to more than 500 men in southern Afghanistan in June. Most of the face-to-face interviews lasted about an hour.
Women were not surveyed, MacDonald said, due to logistical problems — it requires specialized research teams — and on-the-ground realities. “Unfortunately, their opinions are of limited relevance to what’s going to happen in Afghanistan in the short term,” she said. Given the nature of the survey, MacDonald said she was pleasantly surprised to find that a majority of Afghan men (57 per cent) supported girls’ education.
There were other encouraging signs in the results: 40 per cent of Afghans said democracy was important to them, and when given the choice between an elected government and the Taliban, a strong majority (72 per cent) favoured the democratic option.
MacDonald said the findings suggest the battle for hearts and minds is not over particularly when a majority, of Afghans (55 per cent) still believe NATO is winning the war.
“We have not been very good at understanding what their needs are and responding to that,” she said. “But that’s something that can be fixed without more troops or a lot more money.”