Reality Check: Afghans Blame Us, Not Insurgents

The following article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Afghan distrust of international forces runs so deep that many accuse the West of supporting insurgents to justify their continued presence in Afghanistan. Military officials and diplomats cast these allegations aside as conspiracy theories existing on the margins of society, but a new report from the Open Society Foundations found the sentiment is widespread.

The implications are dire. If Afghans don’t trust the international community to act in their best interest, how can the international community implement some of its most ambitious strategies that require local cooperation, such as reconciliation, reintegration, and good governance projects?

The report, The Trust Deficit: The Impact of Local Perceptions on Policy in Afghanistan, demonstrates the degree to which civilian casualties, wrongful and abusive detention operations, deteriorating security, and a lack of accountability by international forces have eroded Afghan trust. Whereas Westerners regard international forces as protecting Afghans, pushing back insurgents, and fighting terrorism, many Afghans regard international forces as harming civilians, terrorizing local populations through night raids, and creating instability by bankrolling warlords and private militias.

Some of these perceptions are the result of the insurgents’strong propaganda machinery and suspicion of foreigners based on Afghanistan’s history of invasion. Even so, many Afghans welcomed the U.S. incursion in 2001. Against a backdrop of high expectations for improvements to their daily lives, their faith was shaken once they saw that foreign military forces were unable to distinguish between the Taliban and civilians; that the international community failed to make good on promises of improving security and governance; their willingness to collude with nefarious characters; and the lack of accountability for detainee abuse and civilian casualties.

Under General Stanley McChrystal, and now under General Petraeus, the military has successfully reduced its civilian casualties; and it’s put in place instructions for soldiers to be more sensitive to the rights and customs of Afghans. Detention practices have also improved. But this is just one piece of the military's stability puzzle. Without proper accountability, years of civilian casualties and detainee abuse have left an indelible mark.

Meanwhile civilian casualties caused by insurgents continue to increase; and many Afghans blame their own government and international forces for not finding an end to this. The U.S. also faces criticism for creating a new community policing program called Afghan Local Police. There is a history of similar initiatives that ultimately empower unaccountable and abusive groups and individuals.

All the cumulative disappointment is bad news for an international community that has been struggling unsuccessfully to connect with the Afghan people, stabilize the country, and leave. A woman from Khost, whose views were expressed by many other Afghans, was quoted in the report as stating, “In my opinion, the American forces themselves want to create insurgency for their own interest. Because, if there is peace in the country, then the people will tell them that there is no need for the international forces to stay in the country. That is why they have let the insurgency increase.”

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