Taliban Regaining Influence, Report Warns

LONDON – The Taliban are beginning to regain influence in the south of Afghanistan, according to an independent group actively engaged in local work in the region.

They are also increasingly confronting government and coalition troops inside Afghanistan, says the report by The Senlis Council, which is working closely with people, particularly farmers, across the country.

"What we are witnessing for the past few months is a rise in the level of the attacks of the insurgents and the Taliban and a sophistication in the terror techniques used," Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of The Senlis Council told IPS Tuesday.

"What our latest report shows is that the perception of the local people has changed too," Reinert said. "And they now see the Taliban as acceptable. So actually the Taliban are about to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population."

And the Taliban are now better organized, he said. "We’re talking about attacks being conducted every day. We’re talking about a rise in suicide bombings, from five in 2004 to 21 in just the first semester of 2006. We’re talking of a sophistication of terror techniques used, for example in the explosive devices used. So there is definitely a change in the way the insurgents are organizing their operations."

The Taliban could be gaining in strength with support from the Pakistan side across the border, Reinert said.

"What is sure is that the Taliban and other groups are regrouping on the borders, in Pakistan where they find safe haven and where they can organize attacks on the Kabul government forces in Helmand and Kandahar."

In this situation British troops being sent into the south of Afghanistan to replace U.S. troops in Helmand district have a tough task ahead of them, Reinert told media representatives earlier. "According to our report, about 80 percent of the population in Helmand supports the Taliban. The British troops will need to regain control, and for this they will need a different approach. That approach will have to be to listen to people and their needs."

"The aggressive military intervention so far by U.S. troops and their supporters has meant that the coalition forces have lost the support of the local people," Reinert said. And people have gained little from the occupation, he said. "So much was promised, and so little has been delivered."

A report released by The Senlis Council Tuesday says that attacks on people’s livelihoods through poppy eradication, the killing of civilians including women and children in military operations, and a sense of abandonment and exclusion have led to a complete breakdown of trust and support for the international military.

The large-scale aggressively forced eradication of poppy crops in Helmand, led by the U.S., has contributed in a significant way to the discontent of the local populations, the Senlis report says.

"I have been cultivating opium for 27 years, and always it was peacefully. I was only cultivating two to three jeribs, only to survive … they eradicated everything, everything that I had. … Nothing was left. Everybody witnessed it," farmer Sher Mohammad from the district of Sharwale in Helmand is quoted as saying in the report.

Jerib is a local unit of the land measurement equal to roughly half an acre.

Despite the eradication campaigns that have been carried out in the past months, the opium harvest is expected to be even higher this year than in the past, with many farmers who had stopped growing poppy in past years returning to it, the Senlis report says. They had stopped either in respect of the ban decreed by President Hamid Karzai or because they were promised they would receive help from alternative livelihood schemes financed by the international community.

Helmand already has the largest area under cultivation in Afghanistan – accounting for 25 percent of the country’s total poppy cultivation in 2005. The research also indicated a predicted increase in 2006 of 50 percent in opium cultivation reaching 40,000 hectares.

The Council said that there is a direct connection between the neglect of the farmers’ interests and the failure to address their extreme poverty, and the state of war in Helmand now.

The report notes that there are many factors that have led to the disintegration of confidence in the international community and the central government. One of these is the way in which foreign troops are perceived of as uncaring toward the value of the lives of Afghan citizens, with an increasing number of cases of civilian deaths or injuries at the hands of the coalition military.

Additionally the United States unilaterally bombing Kandahar undermined the civilian population’s support for the Karzai government, the Council says in its report. It said the recent riots in Kabul were also an example of the increasing hostility of the Afghan people toward the international community.

"Helmand is an early warning of what the whole of Afghanistan could become if a radically different approach is not taken in the coming months," said Reinert.