x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Killing of civilians fuels anger against US

Ethnic communities in Afghanistan threaten to take arms and retaliate against troops.

Toor Khan, a tribal leader from Shindand, says his community 'hates the Americans'.
Toor Khan, a tribal leader from Shindand, says his community 'hates the Americans'.

HERAT, AFGHANISTAN // Toor Khan knows all too well what life is like as a young boy caught up in a violent struggle against foreign occupation. Now, 30 years after the Soviet invasion, he is concerned that his children are living through the same nightmare he experienced. "At that time I was very small. My father was armed with a gun and when we went out we saw lots of people with sticks in their hands trying to fight Russian tanks. They said these are not Muslims and they attacked our country," he recalled.

"Now we can see the Americans are coming into our houses, burning the Quran-i-Sharif, stealing and killing. The people of Shindand hate the Americans." The plight of Mr Khan's community here in western Afghanistan came to the world's attention briefly last year, in a tragedy that appeared to represent much of what has gone wrong with the war. On the night of Aug 21-22 US-led forces carried out air strikes on the village of Azizabad. They claimed they were targeting a local insurgent commander. A subsequent UN investigation found that 90 civilians, including 60 children and 15 women, were killed.

The US military said only five to seven innocent people had died, before later increasing the figure to 33. However, it still described the raid as being "in self defence, necessary and proportional". Six months later and that particular incident has been forgotten outside of Afghanistan. Yet tribal leaders from the area insist their suffering has continued unabated, pushing them ever closer to taking up arms and joining the resistance.

Mr Khan, who has eight children, said in an interview that one of his cousins had been killed and two others wounded in the air strikes on Azizabad, a village in Herat's Shindand district. But he was quick to claim that August's bloodshed was only part of a continuing tragedy, recalling a number of other killings that he said had happened in recent months. They included the deaths of two civilians.

"One was a driver, one was working for the government. During the night the Americans went to their houses, took them out and killed them in front of their families. Then they went back and announced on the news that they had killed two Taliban," he said. "It is not allowed in Afghan culture that the Americans should go directly to people's houses, but they are doing this all the time. Whenever they see a person has a turban or beard, they kill him."

Mr Khan was speaking in Herat's provincial capital. Shindand lies on the road leading south from the city, towards the insurgent heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar. It is a mountainous, overwhelmingly Pashtun, district that shares a border with Iran. Most of the people are shepherds and farmers, growing crops including wheat and the poppies used to produce opium. All those interviewed said unrest had spread there during the past year, with government officials carrying out tribal vendettas by giving the US false intelligence information about who belonged to the Taliban.

They have complained in person to Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, but so far they claim he has failed to act. Mr Khan said residents were now beginning to take matters into their own hands. "The people need just a little bit more pressure, then they will start to demonstrate or fight because there is no other choice. Lots of blood will be spilt in Shindand," Mr Khan said. "Someone did a suicide attack against the Americans on the main road. He attacked their vehicles and no one is sure how many were killed or injured. But after the attack the people of Shindand hid his body parts. Then they distributed sweets among the community, said he was a martyr and buried him in a very respectful way."

Sayed Ahmad, also from Shindand, claimed that officials deliberately create tension between two of the local tribes, the Barakzais and the Noorzais. This had resulted in a kind of mini-civil war and about 100 deaths during the past year. "The district governor and other commanders are not good. All the time they go to the [Afghan army] and the Americans and accuse people of being Taliban, then the Americans bomb us," he said.

"Once [US soldiers] came to my house when I had sent my family to another village. They searched it and found lots of boxes that were locked. They didn't try to open them properly, they just shot them. They killed two of my cows as well. Why did they do that?" During the raid, which Mr Ahmad said took place two months ago, a Quran is said to have been set on fire. It was alleged that another Quran was torn with a knife.

What is clear is that the residents of Shindand are both angry and fearful. And as the Soviet Union discovered, that usually results in only one thing. "The Americans have killed lots of people," said Abdul Qayoum, 48. "Of course we will start to fight against them." A recent Pentagon report found that insurgent attacks rose by 33 per cent last year. It admitted the Taiban are challenging the government for control in the south and east of the country, "and increasingly in the west".

Col Greg Julian, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview that rebels had "embedded themselves" in Shindand, but it was not known if they had local support. He insisted military operations in the area were based on solid intelligence. "When we go in on an objective we don't go in with just one source of information from, for example, an informant. We go in with multiple sources of information," he said.

Col Julian added that US soldiers were "acutely aware" of cultural and religious sensitivities surrounding house raids. "We're doing everything we can to train more Afghans to ensure that they are included on these operations, but our own troops do not go into homes and violate Qurans. That's just simply unintelligible." csands@thenational.ae