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.
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.
At the recent shura in Panjwayi, Canadian Army officers planned it all – from helping set the agenda to configuring the seating arrangements – though they left all the talking during the meeting to the Afghan Army and district governor.
Despite the intricate involvement, Canadian Army Maj. Christian Lillington rejects the idea that preparing outreach efforts in such detail could make their Afghan counterparts more puppets than independent, equal partners.
“If there’s something in that community that is dysfunctional or preventing us from having positive momentum then clearly we’ll have to say to the governor, ‘Look, honestly, for us to facilitate your work as the governor and for the development to come in from ISAF or outside agencies … these are some of the items we need to address,’ ” says Major Lillington, who commands Panjwayi’s Operational Coordination Center.
More questions than answers
Among the nearly 50 elders who turned out for the recent shura, most seemed uninterested in the government’s justification for the recent Canadian-Afghan Army operation and more concerned with friends and family who had been detained as a result.
Haji Baran, the district governor, said he couldn’t speak about the arrests because detainees were still being processed and questioned. As Mr. Baran dodged questions, tempers flared and villagers shot questions at him. Baran invited people to visit him at the district center later in the week when he had more information. With no other questions, the shura dispersed, with many of the locals seemingly just as frustrated as they were before the meeting.
The Canadian military, however, deemed the meeting a success, because it established a channel for them to follow up with the Afghan military and government officials.
“As cathartic as it would be to just talk about the issues, if they knew full well that there would be nothing [that happened afterwards], I don’t think people would show up, I don’t think most people would deal with it,” says Lt. Aaron Lesarge, an information operations officer for the Task Force Kandahar 1-10 Battle Group.
“I think most people have a belief in the system to a degree, and that’s why they came.”