January 23, 2010

NIHILISM ALWAYS HAS A SHRINKING CONSTITUENCY:

Glimmers of hope as Nato targets hearts and minds in Afghanistan: There is now a belief in Nato circles that a change in Taliban tactics means Afghanistan's four-year spiral into violent anarchy might still be halted (Julian Borger, 1/24/10, The Observer)

But there was another striking aspect of Monday's attack that may have a longer-term significance. In all the mayhem caused by the four-hour battle – involving rocket-propelled grenades, a shoot-out in a shopping centre and the final detonation of their vests by the surviving insurgents – only five civilians were killed. That was a much smaller toll than the one caused by a similar, less ambitious, attack last February.

The Afghan army and police put this down to their speedy intervention – and they were undoubtedly quick to deploy. But it almost certainly had more to do with the fact that when the attackers reached the shopping centre, they told the stall holders and shoppers to get out. At one point the attackers used children as human shields, but let them go before blowing themselves up. The seven suicide bombers appear to have been under orders to target government institutions and the people who worked there, but to avoid harming bystanders. It was not an attack aimed solely at creating terror for its own sake, suggesting Nato may not be the only party in the fight trying to limit civilian casualties. The insurgents, whether it was the Taliban or another group that attacked last Monday, seem aware of their own deep unpopularity and are rethinking tactics accordingly.

Such an isolated example of scruples would not add up to much were it not for a recent cluster of other positive signs for the Kabul government and its Nato backers. An opinion poll published this month by the BBC found a leap in optimism among Afghans, with 70% believing the country was going in the right direction, compared with 40% a year ago. Support for Nato troops rose from 59% to 62%. Meanwhile, opium production dipped in 2009, with the area of poppy cultivation down by a third in Helmand – the province under British control that has hitherto been the poppy centre of the country. Also in Helmand, district centres that were run or threatened by the Taliban until a few months ago are now under Afghan army and police control, and peaceful enough for the shops and bazaars to reopen. At the same time, anecdotal evidence from the villages suggests an increasing number of ­Taliban fighters – battle-weary or drawn by new jobs – are returning home to their ­families.


Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2010 9:36 PM
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