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Brig.-Gen Dean Milner center, Commander of Canadian Forces Kandahar slaute along with others for Afghan and Canadian anthem during a transfer of command authority ceremony in Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan, Thursday, July 7, 2011. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)
Brig.-Gen Dean Milner center, Commander of Canadian Forces Kandahar slaute along with others for Afghan and Canadian anthem during a transfer of command authority ceremony in Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan, Thursday, July 7, 2011. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Afghanistan

Many in Kandahar fear looming disaster as Canada withdraws Add to ...

But the police chief seemed to despise the more important communist strategy: trading land and cash for peace. His own relative, Esmat Muslim, was among the anti-Soviet commanders, or mujahedeen, lured to the government side in the late 1980s, but he now believes such agreements won't work because the new generation of fighters lacks patriotism.

"The mujahedeen loved their country, just wanted the Russians to leave," Gen. Razik said. "Now, the insurgents want other things."

Talking to the Taliban

The Taliban disagree, saying their biggest aim is troop withdrawals, but Gen. Razik is correct that the Taliban want "other things" that do not sit well with the government: a new constitution, a new president. A researcher I've worked with for years in Kandahar travelled west of the city on my behalf, meeting two mid-level insurgent leaders and phoning back so that I could chat with them.

They were full of triumphant rhetoric about the Canadian pullout and the coming U.S. withdrawals.

Somewhat chillingly, they were the only people I spoke with in Kandahar who predicted that violence would decrease after the foreign troops leave. They expected to sweep back into power as they did from 1994 to 1996, eventually leaving Dr. Najibullah hanging in a public square, imposing a brutal order on the chaos.

Their return probably won't be so easy this time; foreign aid will continue flowing into Kabul even after the troops leave. Without a peace deal or a decisive victor, Afghanistan could be left with civil war.  Perhaps just as unlikely as the Taliban dream of imposing peace is their promise to continue hunting Canadians. They seemed undeterred by the fact that most insurgents cannot locate Canada on a map; thousands of civilians have died, they say, leaving a score that may need to be settled in future. 

"They killed our people and we killed theirs," an insurgent commander said. "Whether we need to take more revenge, we will discuss this after they withdraw."

Bad Polling Numbers

None of the locals I met during a week in Kandahar described a feeling of safety in their communities, and I was working in the safest parts of the city. The Canadian government claims that Afghans feel differently: "Overall, 59 per cent of Kandaharis polled feel safe in their communities and 54 per cent think that security is improving," says the latest quarterly report on the Afghan mission. "These levels are considerably higher than what was observed over the same period in 2010, when just 38 per cent reported feeling safe and 39 per cent believed security was improving."

The numbers are pulled from a set of 16 polls commissioned by the Canadian military and conducted by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research (ACSOR), a large private firm. An analysis of ACSOR data, obtained by the Globe and Mail, shows that a statistician raised serious doubts about the company's methods in Afghanistan. The British government commissioned two study papers, totalling 89 pages, which concluded last year that officials should not use the ACSOR results "for potentially contentious questions around government performance, security, corruption, justice and democracy." The author suggested that trend indicators may be useful, if treated cautiously, but emphasized that high percentages of the Afghans surveyed did not understand the questions or felt uncomfortable answering honestly. During one round of surveys for the international military forces in southern Afghanistan, in Dec. 2009, the results suggested that only half the respondents understood the whole survey, and only a slightly greater percentage felt comfortable with all the questions. In a different ACSOR survey, roughly 60 per cent of respondents "somewhat" or "strongly" agree that it's not acceptable to criticize the government. Those numbers suggest that Afghans are vulnerable to what surveyors call "social desirability bias," a fancy term for telling people what they want to hear. That's a problem everywhere, but gets magnified in a war zone where people do not feel safe speaking openly. One Western statistician said the social desirability issue makes the polls almost pointless -- an idea rejected, of course, by ACSOR and the Canadian government.

"Polling in Afghanistan plays a useful and productive role in trying to understand the impact of both the Afghan and international efforts that are ongoing in all parts of the country," said Matthew Warshaw, ACSOR's managing director, in an email. "We apply rigorous social science research standards in our projects." His clients also appear satisfied: "Polling data provides the Canadian forces in Afghanistan with very valuable information," said a spokeswoman at the Canadian embassy in Kabul. Paul Fishstein, a Harvard fellow whose experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan spans three decades, says the analysis of ACSOR data gives some relief to the veteran researchers who have always wondered why the numbers differed from their anecdotal understanding of local opinion. "At a minimum," he said, "it helps many of us reconcile what we hear over tea with Afghan friends and colleagues with the alternate reality presented by some of the public opinion polls."

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