The southern Afghan city founded by Alexander the Great (and which still bears a Pashto version of his name) is the latest target of the US/NATO/ISAF military forces.

Initial efforts to secure key roads into Kandahar began last week. “Operation Omaid [Hope]” as it has been dubbed aims to gain control of this city which is the original home of the Taliban movement. The operation is expected to take several months to complete.

The Taliban (i.e. the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) have already begun their counter-offensive, detonating seven bombs (including two suicide bombs) in mid-March that killed 35 people and wounded 57 more. On the propaganda front, they have vigorously denied claims that their representatives entered into negotiations with UN emissaries or the Karzai regime.

I thought it would be useful to see how the Afghan media is responding to the latest military initiative by foreign forces and the Taliban’s counter-measures. (Obviously, I am relying on English translations of the media).

1. Hewad (a state owned newspaper, published in Dari from Kabul) ran an article on 17 March titled “Conducting the National Peace Jirga” which stated:

“Operation Moshtarak will be followed by another massive operation in Kandahar Province but, as we witnessed, putting pressure on the Taliban to weaken them was not a good option to bring them to the table of talks. After the Taliban group left Marjah District, they took their revenge in Kabul and Kandahar Provinces and the Taliban passed the message to the foreign troops in Afghanistan that the explosions in Kabul and Kandahar Provinces were a response to losses in Helmand Province. The National Peace Jirga will only have results if the foreign troops stop launching operations on the bases of the Taliban and start building trust. Planning new operations on the bases of the Taliban destroys trust and the chance for negotiations and the continuation of the operations will also help the crisis in Afghanistan to last longer.”

The article’s argument relies heavily on the belief that peaceful negotiations are the only way to settle the conflict and that the trust necessary to lay the groundwork for negotiations can only happen if a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign forces is drawn up by the government. Notably, the argument parallels the demands of the Taliban, whose only precondition for negotiations is the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.

2. Hasht-e-Sobh (an independent daily out of Kabul) echoed very similar sentiments in an article written in Pashto on 17 March titled, “Major players in this war seem worn out.” The article also noted the incongruity of the launch of a military operation at a time when the Karzai government has announced a National Peace Jirga:

“The most recent bloody terrorist attack, which killed 35 and injured around 80 people in Kandahar city once again showed to foreigners that Taleban can strike wherever they want. NATO Commander, General McChrystal, should in the face of the current situation review his planned offensive in Kandahar Province. Instead, he should work for peace and support the efforts of the Afghan government to hold a consultative peace jirga early next year [i.e. March-April 2010 AD]. He should persuade Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional countries to work for peace and to abandon their military, economic and political interests in favour of national interests of the people of Afghanistan. He should view the Afghan problem as an international issue and strive to find a solution within the framework of the traditional loya jirgas or grand assemblies and thus put an end to the war.”

The article discussed David Miliband’s recent speech at MIT and concurred with him that a political solution is the only way to end the war. The paper also favorably noted Representative Kucinich’s efforts in Congress to debate the war in Afghanistan (although the article mistakenly stated the initiative came from a US Senator).

3. Anis (a newspaper published in Dari out of Herat) ran an editorial on 16 March which argued that Taliban tactics reflected the militant organization’s failure and defeat in Helmand province:

“… When one side enjoys superior military resources and logistical facilities, the opposite side resorts to ambush and is forced to use means such as the planting of mines and suicide bombing. In the current situation, the government’s opponents are facing defeat in Helmand Province and have also lost their military positions in Pakistan. Therefore, the only way for the Taleban to continue the war is to carry out ambushes, plant mines along the roads and launch suicide attacks against civilians. In addition, the recent suicide attacks launched by the opponents in Kandahar Province are in fact their reaction to the recent defeats of the Taleban in Helmand. To retaliate against the government’s attacks, they may continue suicide attacks, ambushes and planting mines in the spring. Therefore, to repel the terrorist attacks Afghan security forces have to take effective measures to prevent ambushes and the planting of mines on the main roads, and to thus thwart the enemy’s plans.”

4. Sur Ghar (a newspaper published in Kandahar) ran an English article titled, “Experts believe that Marja style operations would be ‘useless’ in Kandahar” on 13 March. The paper quoted an Afghan expert, Gharzai Khwakhozai, who argued:

“If it takes weeks to take control of a place merely big as a village, how will they take control of a province or a city?” asked Khowakhozai. Marja is one of the 348 districts of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.”

Khwakhozai believes that ISAF forces should be stationed on Afghanistan’s borders to prevent the flow of arms which he says are inflaming the conflict. One reads this type of argument quite frequently in the Afghan media. I think it is a way of pointing the finger and blaming foreign powers for the conflict rather than a serious strategic argument.

Overall, it would seem that while opinion is divided in the Afghan media on how to interpret the Taliban’s reprisal attacks earlier this month, there is a perplexed attitude towards a military operation coinciding with planning for a National Peace Jirga. The news editorials do not seem to agree that a show of force will knock the Taliban onto the negotiating table.

[Cross-posted at Afghan Notebook]

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