x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Tide of Afghan opinion flows against US surge

As air strikes claim more civilian lives, villagers who have lost relatives and neighbours lose their trust in the war effort

JALALABAD // It was early on a summer morning when Haji Gul Zarin and his village turned against the presence of US troops in Afghanistan. They should have been celebrating the wedding of his nephew, but instead they were gathering the remains of the bride and 46 others and putting them into bags after an air strike hit their party.

"We will never accept peace talks and negotiations with the government. We just pray to God that He will destroy these stupid Americans and their allies," Mr Zarin said more than a year later in Nangarhar province. Now, with the conflict about to expand, the legacy of that fateful day in July 2008 might just be a sign of the dangers awaiting the new US strategy designed to end the war. Mr Zarin's village, in the east of the country, was once the kind of place the White House sees as a route towards an exit. People there had come to a collective agreement that they would not support the Taliban, even clashing with insurgents when they tried to enter the area. Any household caught sheltering a rebel was ordered to pay a fine to the tribe as punishment.

Then the wedding party was bombed and everything changed. The United States claimed militants had been killed, but an Afghan presidential commission found 47 civilians had died. That is also the number locals give now. "We saw their heads were cut off, their arms, all the bodies were split into thousands of pieces. We were all very scared. Never before had we seen this kind of situation. Most of the bodies were burnt by fire like they were kebabs on sticks," Mr Zarin remembered.

The result was that a once-friendly village has been turned into a place ripe for resistance. Its people do not want even a single new US soldier in Afghanistan and they say most of the country agrees with them. Mr Zarin, 50, was speaking in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan. He had travelled with two of his nephews from their home district of Dih Bala to describe how local life has changed irrevocably in the past year.

"The Americans do not act like the Russians, they act like the British. They say they are our friends, then they come and kill our families, bomb our wedding parties and funerals. Right now, we can't have big weddings in the daytime. We hold our weddings like thieves in the night. When somebody is dead in the village we cannot submit them to the earth openly, we submit them to the earth during darkness," he said.

Under the new war strategy announced by the US president, Barack Obama, 30,000 additional US troops will be sent to Afghanistan, bringing the total to about 100,000. Added to that are the tens of thousands of Nato soldiers already here, with 7,000 more due to arrive. Unknown numbers of heavily armed private contractors are also in the country. Washington believes the increased troop deployment is required to shift momentum away from the Taliban, but the dangers are that it may do exactly the opposite.

Civilian casualties have been a consistent source of anger among ordinary Afghans and Dih Bala is not the only place to have had a wedding party bombed in the past eight years. If the fighting intensifies, the deaths of innocent people are inevitable. Judging by the views of these villagers, that could spell disaster for the occupation. One of Mr Zarin's nephews, Wazir Ahmad, lost his wife and two children in the strike. He said he believes the massacre was deliberate and warned that the additional soldiers "will just make blood run in the streets and kill a lot of Afghans".

"When the Americans leave our country, we will have peace. But I don't know when they will leave. Time and the amount of opposition will determine that," he said. The head of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has repeatedly stressed the need to reduce civilian casualties, calling it "strategically decisive" and issuing a directive aimed at tackling the problem soon after assuming his role.

There have, however, been few tangible signs of any change on the ground. Just last week, US forces are alleged to have killed 15 people in Laghman province, which borders Nangarhar. In the aftermath, protesters chanting "Death to Obama" and carrying the bodies of the casualties took to the streets. It was an all too familiar scene for the people of eastern and southern Afghanistan, and the signs are growing that their patience has run out.

Atiq Ullah, the groom whose wedding party was destroyed last year, said nothing could repair the damage done to him and his village. "The Americans and the government have not apologised to me or paid me anything, and I will not ask them to," he said. "No, I don't want an apology. I don't care about them." csands@thenational.ae