The U.S. military has now officially backtracked from its earlier suggestion that it would seek the consent of local shuras, or consultative conferences with those elders, to carry out the coming military occupation of Kandahar city and nearby districts – contradicting a pledge by Afghan President Hamid Karzai not to carry out the operation without such consent. Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told IPS Tuesday that local tribal elders in Kandahar could “shape the conditions” under which the influx of foreign troops operate during the operation, but would not determine whether or where NATO troops would be deployed in and around the city.
Asked whether the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is committed to getting local approval before introducing more troops into Kandahar and surrounding districts, the McChrystal spokesman said, “We’re not talking about something as simple as a referendum.”
At a Mar. 29 briefing in Kabul on plans for the Kandahar operation, however, an unnamed senior U.S. military official told reporters that one of the elements of the strategy for gaining control over the Taliban stronghold is to “shura our way to success” – referring to the Islamic concept of consultative bodies. In those conferences with local tribal elders, the officials said, “The people have to ask for the operation… We’re going to have to have a situation where they invite us in.”
Those statements clearly suggested the intention to get the support of local tribal elders before going ahead with the large-scale military operation scheduled to begin in June.
That is what President Karzai said to a shura of between 1,000 and 2,000 Kandahar province tribal elders Apr. 4. Karzai said NATO’s Kandahar operation would not be carried out until the elders themselves were ready to support it, according to a number of press reports.
According to the report by RTA, Afghanistan’s state television service, Karzai actually said, “I know you are worried about this operation,” before asking their opinion. He also said that the shuras to be organised at the district level were for the purpose of “getting approval and deciding” on the operation, according to the RTA report.
And the assembled elders made it known that they didn’t want the operation.
That was clearly not what McChrystal, who was sitting behind Karzai at the shura, wanted to hear.
McChrystal’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. William Mayville, and spokesman Sholtis both sought to minimise the damage from the incident. Mayville asserted that Karzai is “on board” on the Kandahar offensive, adding, “We would not have had this shura if he wasn’t convinced this is the right stuff.”
Sholtis suggested that Karzai had only “made it clear that he would involve local leaders in the decision-making process”.
Sholtis acknowledged that “nobody wants a counterinsurgency fought in their backyard”, but claimed that the elders who spoke at the Kandahar shura had “made it clear that Kandahar also suffers from an unwanted Taliban presence.”
Sholtis also said the three elders who had expressed concerns about the operation had been supported by “probably about a third of the more than 1,000 who attended”.
But published accounts of the meeting show that the elders were not calling for expelling the Taliban from the city and its environs. When Karzai asked the assembled elders whether they were “happy or unhappy for the operation to be carried out”, they shouted loudly, “We are not happy,” the Sunday Times of London reported.
As reported by AFP, when Karzai asked, “Are you worried?” the elders shouted back, “Yes we are!”
According to the RTA account, one elder interrupted Karzai to say, “Who are the Taliban, but my son and another’s nephew? The problem is actually these people who are in power, in particular the tribal elders and those who have power in Kandahar city.”
And in a revealing response, Karzai said, “Absolutely, you are right…”
Some of the elders told CNN’s Atia Abawi they preferred to negotiate with the Taliban rather than confront them in a military offensive.
McChrystal and other officials in the ISAF command appear to have hoped that the threat of a major influx of U.S. troops in and around Kandahar city would compel such local leaders and tribal elders to persuade Taliban troops to leave their district. Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported Mar. 21 that U.S. officials had been telling them they had to “improve governance, address corruption and eject the Taliban” or face “expanding military operations”.
McChrystal and ISAF base that calculation on a broader U.S.-NATO assumption about the nature of the Taliban movement and its base of popular support in Kandahar and southwestern Afghanistan in general.
The British regional coordinator for southern Afghanistan, Nicholas Kay, told Asia Times correspondent Syed Saleem Shahzad in January 2007 that a majority of the population of southwestern Afghanistan supported the Taliban. But Kay said that 80 percent were Taliban or supporters only because they were “disgruntled by government inefficiencies and corruption” and were therefore “reconcilable”.
Only 20 percent of the Taliban and their supporters were “ideologically committed” to the cause, Kay told Shahzad.
Kay’s view formed the basis for the Barack Obama administration’s optimistic strategy of “turning” the supposedly reconcilable 80 percent of the Taliban. That theory failed, however, to consider a key political dynamic in southern Afghanistan: the Taliban exploitation of the government’s opium eradication policy, which systematically favoured wealthy landowners – who were allowed to avoid destruction in return for a bribe – and fell entirely on the poor.
As early as spring 2006, tribal elders in Kandahar province were supporting the Taliban in return for the insurgents providing protection against government destruction of opium fields, as the well-informed International Council on Security and Development reported in April 2006.
Journalist Gretchen Peters found the same alliance between the Taliban and opium farmers against opium eradication in Helmand province in 2007. It was neither “ideology” nor mere anger about government corruption that was binding the rural population to the Taliban but something far more tangible.
The big Apr. 4 shura in Kandahar revealed a chasm between the prevailing U.S. view of soft support for the Taliban and the views of both Karzai and the tribal elders themselves. As a result there will be no empowering of district shuras to decide whether or not to invite U.S. and Canadian troops to confront the Taliban.
But McChrystal must now worry about how the Kandahar campaign can succeed in the face of opposition from both local leaders and President Karzai.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.
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