Context & Culture

Counterinsurgency in Kandahar: what happened to the fence?


A short visit to Kandahar, as it has been a while. In the afternoon there is a donkey cart bomb several blocks away. It kills three children, destroys a police post and rattles the office I am visiting. The blast of moving air tells the body something about vulnerability that it had forgotten. In the evening there is a warning that a nearby compound may be attacked: people in the area have been told by unidentified men that it is in their interest to leave. The next morning there is news that the deputy mayor has been shot while doing his prayers, and a phone call of a friend saying: just don’t move around too much today. In the afternoon, as I drive by the sites of earlier bombings – the recent ones still a mangle of rubble, snapped wood and folded pieces of metal – there are more warnings and rumours, and an eerily quiet city.

The people I talk to are affected by the constant stream of incidents and threats, and the fact that they often don’t really know who is attacking and why. But underlying that there is a deeper worry, one that tells them that they have been sold out and that things are not going to be alright anytime soon. The conversations in Kandahar about what is going on and where things are heading are so different from the discussions among internationals that it is hard to believe they are talking about the same area.
In the last few weeks the military and the media have been focusing on the upcoming military operation – or ‘process’ as the military now prefer to call it – and on whether the Kandahari’s can be persuaded that this will turn their situation around for the better. There is an optimism among the planners that people’s trust can be regained and that support for the insurgency can be undermined by a combination of increased security measures, targeted military operations, large-scale projects and support to government structures. But talking to people whom I have known for years, this did not feature at all.

It was not so much that they were skeptical about the benefits of such an operation. It was rather that the whole offensive was just not important enough to have an opinion about. If asked, they would say things like: operations are good, they target the Taliban, but it is the ordinary people who suffer. Or: there are operations all the time, they don’t change anything. They obviously didn’t believe that their lives were about to be turned around. But more importantly, the whole subject seemed a distraction from the real issues: why is the situation getting worse all the time and why is there still no serious strategy, after more than eight years?

Such questions have been raised for years, in Kandahar and all over the country, but this time they no longer seemed rhetorical, and the underlying message in all conversations was this: we know what is going on, we are not stupid, don’t try to fool us. The details varied, but the gist of it remained the same: the foreigners are not weak, they are strong, they could bring stability if they wished, they are playing a clever game with us, they are creating excuses to stay in Afghanistan, and they are all conspiring together: Pakistan, the Taliban, and the internationals who say they have come to help – it is an artificial war and we are suffering. That is what I heard over and over again, in all its variations.

It is not the deluded or illiterate who are saying these things. They are educated people, who have been working with foreigners for years, in full support of their stated objectives and strategies. Their trust was lost, not because they had too little information about what the internationals are doing in Afghanistan, but precisely because they have witnessed for years how time is wasted, money misspent, advice ignored, and silly strategies pursued, while the country sinks into the mud. They have concluded that it must be intentional – any other explanation seems irrational and far-fetched.

The suspicion goes very far. Several people commented on how Thursday’s bomb at the Chemonics compound had probably been planted by foreigners themselves, because how could Afghans have breached the heavy security measures. (One person compared the attack which he described as ‘artificial’, with the donkey cart bomb which he considered ‘natural’ – probably because the latter one had targeted a man with many enemies). The military operations in Marja and Kandahar were described as if they were purposely designed to bring suffering and death. And when discussing the last few decades the various regimes started to blend into one long saga of foreign interference: the mujahedin bringing violence and chaos, the Taliban movement with its leader of unknown family and origin, the Karzai government with its unchecked corruption – all brought upon us by the foreigners. The traditional narrative of Pakistan plotting to plunder and ransack Afghanistan has started to include the western nations as well. This is something new. And although it does not come as a total surprise – confusion and disappointment ultimately breeds bitterness and suspicion – I had really hoped that we would have more time, that we would somehow muddle through long enough, get a few things right..

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is still based on the idea that many Afghans are “sitting on a fence” wondering which side they will support: the government or the insurgency. It was never a very good analogy, as most people are not really in a position to choose; they move with the currents, they duck when they can, and they fight when pushed too hard. But in Kandahar, listening, it seemed we are far beyond that now. There is increasingly no fence, no two sides. What remains is anger, over opportunities lost, trust betrayed and a country wrecked where it could have been alright.

I have returned from Kandahar shaken. Not because of the blasts and the warnings and the feelings of apprehension, but because of how dark the future looks when I listen to what people have to say. I fear that all the shiny plans will do very little to change that.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, War & Peace