WASHINGTON - 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
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 organized 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 minimize 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
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
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 favored 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