Thursday, June 30, 2005

CARLOTTA GALL writes that the rising level of violence in Afghanistan is fueling growing insecurity and feelings of anger against the U.S. presence.

The loss of a military helicopter with 17 Americans aboard in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday comes at a time of growing insecurity here. For the first time since the United States overthrew the Taliban government three and a half years ago, Afghans say they are feeling uneasy about the future.

Violence has increased sharply in recent months, with a resurgent Taliban movement mounting daily attacks in southern Afghanistan, gangs kidnapping foreigners here in the capital and radical Islamists orchestrating violent demonstrations against the government and foreign-financed organizations.

The steady stream of violence has dealt a new blow to this still traumatized nation of 25 million. In dozens of interviews conducted in recent weeks around the country, Afghans voiced concern that things were not improving, and that the Taliban and other dangerous players were gaining strength.

The basic problem is that the Taliban were not defeated when the new government was installed, as the Bush administration said they were. They were still around, although their numbers and operations were disrupted by the U.S. invasion. But when Bush, obsessed with Iraq and having the attention span of a gerbil, moved on to Iraq, the pull-out of troops from Afghanistan and the greatly decreased attention to what was going on there allowed the Taliban to regroup. Now they are starting to thrive again; and poverty, unemployment, unkept promises, and what the Times article calls "the culture of 25 years of war" are working to their advantage.

Given that America is in Afghanistan supposedly to oversee the "liberation" of the Afghan people and prevent the resurgence of the terrorist movement responsible for 9/11, the U.S. military could and should be a lot smarter about how they treat civilians. The locals don't like the bull in a china shop approach to house searches. They don't like having their religion and culture disrespected. They don't like being pushed around. They don't like that Americans are still in Afghanistan, yet can't control the increasing violence and can't communicate a clear purpose for still being there.

"Three years on, the people are still hoping that things are going to work out, but they have become suspicious about why the Americans came, and why the Americans are treating the local people badly," said Jandad Spinghar, leader of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Nangarhar Province in the east, just across the Khyber Pass from Pakistan.
"Generally people are not against the Americans," Mr. Spinghar said. "But in areas where there are no human rights, where they do not have good relations and where there is bad treatment of villagers or prisoners, this will hand a free area to the Taliban. It's very important that the Americans understand how the Afghan people feel."

Reflecting the shifting popular mood, President Hamid Karzai has publicly criticized the behavior of American troops and called for closer cooperation when Afghan homes are raided.

The Taliban's spring offensive has sounded an alarm for the United States military and the Karzai government, both of which had said that the Taliban were largely defeated and that the nation was consolidating behind its first elected national leader.

"We were wrong," a senior Afghan government official acknowledged, saying of the Taliban, "It seems they were spending the time preparing." He insisted on anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject within the government.

While the government blames the Taliban - and its backers in Pakistan and Al Qaeda - for the violence, the American military is frequently blamed by Afghans for drawing radical Islamic fighters to the country and then failing to control them.

"The Americans are the cause of the insecurity," said Abdullah Mahmud, 26, a law student in Kabul. "If they were not here, there would not be any insecurity. The money they are spending on military expenses - if they spent half of it on the Afghan Army and police and raised their skills, then there would not be any security questions."
Afghans interviewed this week frequently warned that if the American forces did not show greater care, especially in their treatment of detainees and their families, the people could turn against them. "They should respect our culture and our religion and they will be successful," said Lal Muhammad, the senior partner of a real estate firm in the southern city of Kandahar.

His partner, Taher Shah, said the United States should not overestimate the extent of its own power. "The Americans are very powerful and they can control the government," he said. "But if the people don't like them, they will have to leave."

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