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It's not if, but when the backlash comes in the war on terrorism
Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2002


KANDAHAR - The United States Special Forces boys barged into the Kandahar Guest House like they belonged to an army of occupation.

One wore kitty-litter camouflage fatigues and a bush hat, another was paunchy in jeans. The interior of their four-wheel drives glittered with guns. They wanted to know if a man called Hazrat was staying at the guest house. They didn't say why. The concierge had never heard the name. The five men left, unsmiling, and sped back on to the main road. "Why did they talk to me like that?" the concierge asked me. "Who do they think they are?" It was best not to reply.

"The Afghan people will wait a little longer for all the help they have been promised," the local district officer in Maiwind muttered a few hours later. "We believe the Americans want to help us. They promised us help. They have a little longer to prove that they mean this. After that ... " He didn't need to say any more.

Out at Maiwind, in the oven-like grey desert west of Kandahar, the Americans do raids, not aid. Even when the US military tries to do a little humanitarian work, the Western non-governmental organisations working with the United Nations keep their distance.

As a British NGO put it with devastating frankness in Kandahar, "when there is a backlash against the Americans, we want a clear definition between us and them." You hear that phrase all the time in Afghanistan.

"When the backlash comes ... " And it is already coming. The Americans are being attacked now almost every night. There have been three shootings in Kandahar, with an American officer wounded in the neck near the airport two weeks ago.

American troops can no longer dine in Kandahar's cafes. Today, US forces are under attack in Khost province. Two Afghan auxiliaries were killed and five American soldiers wounded near the Pakistan border at the end of July.

For the NGOs in Kabul, the danger lies in the grey area - a deliberate grey area, they say - which the Americans have created between military operations and humanitarian aid.

"Up in Kunduz, they've got what they call a 'humanitarian liaison team' that has repaired a ward in a local hospital and been involved in rebuilding destroyed bridges," the Briton says. "Some of the men with them have been in civilian clothes but carrying guns. We took this up with them, because Afghans began to think that our aid organisation also carried guns. The US told us their men didn't carry weapons openly or wear full uniforms out of deference to the feelings of local tribal leaders. Eventually, we all had to raise this matter in Washington."

It's not difficult to see the dangers. In Kabul, for example, the Americans operate the CJCMOTF - the "Coalition Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force" - whose mission, says an official American document, includes "expertise in supply, transportation, medical, legal, engineering and civil affairs." It has "daily contact with the US Embassy." Their personnel definitions include "physician, veterinarian, attorney, civil engineer, teacher, firefighter, construction, management" but their military experience is "Desert Storm, Operation Provide Comfort, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo."

Then there's the CHLC - the "Coalition Humanitarian Liaison Centre" - at Mazar-i-Sharif. Its objective has been "liaison between assistance community and military coalition", which has included "rebuilding public facilities, 14 schools, providing a generator for the airport terminal and providing a medical clinic, a veterinarian clinic and a library". But its tasks also include "security information", a "channel of communication to coalition commanders, US Embassy and USAID" and, "miscellaneous supplies, e.g. concertina wire." Rebuilding schools has got mixed up with the provision of barbed wire. It makes the aid agencies shudder.

"I have banned all coalition forces from my compound and will not meet with them in public," a Western humanitarian official tells me in Kabul.

He tells them any contact must be by e-mail, and will meet them only in public authority offices.

"Yes, of course we are worried that people will mistake us for the military," he said. "They have these 'humanitarian units' and they ask 'how can we coordinate with you?' but I refuse to coordinate with them. They simply have no idea how to deal with the social, cultural, political complex of life here. They just want to fight a 'war on terror'. I don't think they care."

This was a Western coordinator handling millions of dollars worth of aid. He and his staff know how angry Afghans are becoming at the growing US presence in their country.

While Washington goes on paying the private salaries of local warlords - including some who oppose President Hamid Karzai - a kind of truce will exist, but Afghans take a shrewd interest in US activities here and their anger has been stoked by bombing raids that have killed hundreds of innocents.

After the Americans bombed a wedding party in Uruzgan on June 30th - the death toll is now reliably 55 - Pushtuns were outraged by accounts of US troops preventing survivors from helping the wounded and infuriated by a report that the Americans had photographed naked, dead Afghan women.

An explanation is not difficult to find. For their own investigation, US forces may well have taken pictures of the Uruzgan dead and, since bombs generally blast the clothes off their victims, dead female Afghans would be naked. But the story has become legend. Americans take pictures of naked Afghan women. It's easy to see how this can turn potential Afghan friends into enemies.

Just as the first "mujahideen" assaults on the Russians after the 1980 Soviet invasion tended to focus on Moscow's local Afghan communist allies, so the new guerrilla attacks are being directed at America's Afghan allies.

Even in the Panshir valley, in Molla, the closest village to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance commander murdered by two Arab suicide bombers posing as journalists just two days before the World Trade Centre attacks, a Muslim cleric preached against the Americans.

One Friday last month, Imam Mohamed Sayed told his largely pro-American congregation he had had a dream in which the dead Masood wore a sad face.

"He said the Americans are like the Russians and that we must wage 'holy war' against them," Sayed told his audience.

Mercifully for the Americans - for this is largely friendly, Tajik territory for the US - Imam Sayed's audience was largely unmoved. For the moment.


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