A Plague on Both Their Houses

by

The Economist has an interesting take on the battle for hearts and minds in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Their correspondent argues that all sides in the conflict – the British, the Afghan government, and the Taliban – are losing popularity with local Helmandis, who increasingly see little to choose between them.

While many in the region had been optimistic following the arrival of the British, the failure to provide security, or even a stable form of insecurity, has drained their support:

Helmandis have endured instability for three decades. But the arrival of British forces and a surge in fighting two years ago have made things worse. Locals were used to negotiating a passage from a known commander, whether government or Taliban. Now they face a bewildering array of local bandits, corrupt police, tribal militias, Taliban and NATO forces. All can prove deadly. It is a grinding, bloody stalemate, with inevitable “collateral damage”.

….

The British government has sought to win local “hearts and minds” with reconstruction aid for roads, wells and the like. But most Helmandis impugn British motives. Xenophobic at the best of times, they spread their accusations widely: the British are intent on avenging 19th-century defeats in Afghanistan; are scheming with Pakistan; they are planning to steal drug profits. Attempts to co-opt elements of the Taliban, which led the Afghan government to expel two Western diplomats last December, reinforced suspicions.

However, based upon his interviews with locals, the correspondent concludes that the Taliban are faring little better:

It is some consolation that the Taliban are also ever more unpopular. And Western intelligence officials claim the militants’ co-ordination is breaking down under the relentless killing of Taliban leaders (200 have been killed and 100 arrested in the past year) by Western special forces. Taliban commanders in Helmand bear out this claim. Chains of command have become disjointed, they admit, with larger numbers of junior commanders filling the space left by senior figures such as Mullah Dadullah, their overall commander in Helmand, who was killed by British special forces last May. Internal discipline is harder to enforce. New recruits tend to be younger, more radical and from outside.

Two out of five Taliban fighters in Helmand are now outsiders, according to one Taliban leader. This causes friction with local people. One older Taliban commander admitted that some of his colleagues have been treating people “too harshly”. Local people have become more vocal in demanding that reconstruction be allowed and schools reopened. Militants differ over how to respond.

Read the full article here.

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