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View from Kandahar: 'Petraeus believes in military victory'

According to the US annual strategy review, the US troop surge in Afghanistan has been partly successful. But many observers on the ground say that not much has changed for the better.

Kandahar: a war-torn city

Kandahar: a war-torn city

The Dutch researcher and Afghanistan expert Alex Strick van Linschoten is one of the few Westerners who live in Kandahar. He is the co-editor of 'My life with the Taliban,' a book about Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan in 2001. He's currently working on a study on the links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which will be published in conjunction with the Center on International Cooperation, New York University.

Deutsche Welle: The US troop surge has been visible in the south of Afghanistan since the spring of 2010. What effect has it had so far on Kandahar?

Alex Strick van Linschoten: In some ways, nothing has changed. There have been foreign troops in and outside Kandahar City for several years. But there are some cosmetic shifts. You have a lot of traffic jams in the city now. Before, there used to be mainly Canadian troops in Kandahar, and they would drive around the city so that they wouldn't cause traffic jams. This helped to protect them (as well as locals in the area) from being hit by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). But now the Americans drive straight through the city. So when an IED goes off, people blame the Americans for driving through. They don't blame the Taliban for placing the bomb. You also have much more air traffic compared to the last year.


What is the population's reaction to the conflict?

There are all sorts of things that resonate badly with the people. I spoke to a cameraman who was embedded with the US troops in Arghandab district for a documentary. He mentioned the case of a US commander who went to a village telling the elders, "you have to show us where all the IEDs and mines are, in and around your village. If not, I'm going to bombard your village." The elders said, "we don't know where they are." The local population feels reminded of the Soviet times, when there was a concept of collective responsibility as well - something actually forbidden by the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

How would you describe the situation in Kandahar?

People are depressed. The younger ones are trying to leave. Just a few days ago, two deputy directors of departments were assassinated. Anyone who works for the government is being threatened. The Taliban now have a commission in the city calling on people to leave their jobs. They know exactly who is doing what. There is no way that the Afghan government or the Americans can protect all the people. The military certainly can't pay enough for civilians to risk their lives for a government that no one really believes is going to survive in the present form.


How do the Taliban operate in town?

They have a mediation commission. When you get a 'night letter', for example from the Taliban, warning the locals not to work with what the Taliban call the occupiers, you can object to this letter, arguing that you haven't done anything wrong. It is their own 'hearts and minds' campaign. On the other hand, I don't see too much of the ideological side in Kandahar. Yes, Islam is a motivating factor for the insurgency, but I never really found that Islam was the main motivating factor for the Taliban in the south. There are many other factors that people think of and talk about before Islam.

The US military and government say that they have gained 'momentum' and that they see progress...

My sense is that General Petraeus thinks that he can win the war militarily. I think he may be overestimating his ability to achieve this goal, and underestimating at the same time the effect it has on the Taliban. I don't think Petraeus has a serious interest in a settlement that sees the Taliban as a part of Afghan society.


Was the strategy of Petraeus' predecessor more promising?

Compared to Petraeus, McChrystal seemed like he understood things far better and had a better appreciation of the effects of US military actions. You can see it in the number of night raids. When you look at the ISAF statistics, about the day after Petraeus arrived there was a massive spike in night raids. Petraeus has also restarted the air war. In November, compared to the last year, three times as many bombs were dropped on Afghanistan.

To what extent is the Western and Afghan military strategy hurting the Taliban? How do they react?

The night raids certainly have an effect. They catch or kill a lot of them. But it doesn't seem to have either irrevocably damaged their morale or their ability to carry out attacks. There doesn't seem to be a change in the number of assassinations in the city. It is tough for the Taliban, but they will come back in spring and start all over again.

Some argue that the Taliban are about to change and possibly get more radical as a result of the war. Do you agree?

You can see it in terms of their tactics in the number of beheadings. That would not have happened before. It is the same in terms of their attitude to authority, killing elders for example, and also talking back to Quetta, the senior leadership, in not being completely subservient to them. You see it in the general fragmentation also: the Taliban shadow governor in Kandahar city doesn't have control over all Taliban groups any more. A lot of civilian killings in the city aren't ordered from Quetta. They often comes from small groups. Some may be pushed by Pakistan. But you have a lot more voices now than before.

What does that mean for the months ahead?

The worry, of course, is that all of these things may eventually lead to a sort of Taliban that will look more to an international 'jihad' with younger people in charge on the side of the insurgency, who have only lived in conflict and war, and who don't even remember the old Afghanistan, or the meaning of peace, from before the Soviet War.

Interviewer: Martin Gerner
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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