A catalogue of abuses, including civilian casualties, night raids, wrongful detentions and deteriorating security have generated stereotypes of international forces in Afghanistan as violent, abusive and sometimes deliberately malevolent in their conduct and nature. So says a report on what Afghans think, published last week by the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations regional policy initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Trust Deficit: The Impact of Local Perceptions on Policy in Afghanistan says that many Afghans are angry and resentful at the continued presence of thousands of foreign troops. They believe the troops deliberately stoke up the conflict and cause more civilian casualties than the insurgents, even though this latter point is demonstrably untrue.
The report notes that "In the course of this research, the Open Society Foundations found few meaningful differences in perceptions of international forces, regardless of the ethnicity of the Afghans interviewed, their level of education, political affiliation, or proximity to conflict. Those with staunch pro-government or pro-Western views, and those belonging to regions or groups that have benefited the most in the post-Taliban period also expressed negative attitudes toward the international community, and international forces in particular."
The report says that belated attempts to win hearts and minds have usually been too-little-too-late. It says that by dismissing Afghan perceptions of the international community as propaganda, policy-makers have often failed to understand how much these negative perceptions may be distorting policies. It urges policy-makers to recognise the cause and importance of Afghan communities' narratives, to take them seriously and where necessary to institute meaningful investigations and disciplinary procedures.
The military powers should stop the increased use of night raids, exercise greater political accountability over special forces operations and be very wary of building up local militias.
The international community should work with the Afghan government to ensure that any reconciliation talks include a transitional justice mechanism that acknowledges the suffering of the victims and helps Afghan communities address past grievances. They should establish a public, national registry for victims of conflict that will publish not only the number of casualties caused by the ongoing conflict, but also account for the cause of death, and those believed to be responsible.