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A NATO bid to win the Afghanistan war, one shura at a time

The Canadian Army in Kandahar meets weekly with village elders and local officials, part of the Afghanistan war strategy to build a responsive government.

By Correspondent / July 7, 2010

The Afghan Army passes out humanitarian packages with basic food supplies after a shura, a meeting of village elders, organized by the Canadian Army in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province.

Tom A. Peter

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Panjwayi, Afghanistan

As reports circulate that insurgents may have attacked a nearby unit with rocket-propelled grenades, a Canadian Army sergeant major lets out several profanities. He’s just realized that his soldiers forgot to bring paper plates for the snacks they were going to serve the Afghans.

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Rather than helping with the fighting, his unit here in southern Kandahar Province has been tasked with organizing a shura, a meeting of village elders, to explain why a recent multi-day Canadian-Afghan Army operation here was necessary and to address their concerns.

Nine years into the war in Afghanistan, foreign forces are increasingly trying to get out their message in ways that are culturally familiar to Afghans. Canadian troops on this base in Panjwayi district have hosted a weekly shura for several years now, and this year has tried to hold them in communities during or shortly after major operations.

It’s difficult to measure how helpful the meetings have been. They may not answer locals’ questions satisfactorily or even produce concrete results. Turnout varies from week to week, and Canadian Army officials say they’re uncertain if the gatherings would continue if they weren’t here to organize them. Still, they defend the shuras as important simply to show villagers they can approach Afghan and international forces or their local government if they have grievances. The shuras also help the government and foreign forces stay abreast of local concerns.

“To understand you even just have to watch a war movie, for instance. The soldiers go in, they do what they do, and then they leave, leaving the innocent people behind without somebody to talk to, without anybody to turn to,” says Canadian Army Capt. Dominic Beharrysingh, the operations officer for the Panjwayi District Center.

But some question if the good intentions behind the shuras are enough. “Communications at any point is a good thing. [But] having them in the midst of combat operations is a bit like talking about fire safety when the fire engines have arrived – most attention on both sides is focused elsewhere,” says Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University who researches reconstruction and political development in Afghanistan.

While international forces have improved their ability to operate within the framework of the local culture here, he adds, it’s still being done at a “basic level.”

Canadian or Afghan effort?

The Canadian Army says the shuras play a vital role particularly as NATO tries to stand up to the government ahead of a military offensive in Kandahar. But local officials often seem less enthusiastic about the gatherings than the foreign soldiers do.

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