Afghans Rally in Support of Palestinians

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

KABUL, Jan. 5 -- The modest white Miladul Nabi mosque is almost hidden beneath a massive poster that depicts a red fist raised to the heavens surrounded by slogans expressing sympathy for the Palestinian people, support for what it calls their jihad against Israel and hatred of the "blood-sucking" American government.

Last weekend, the mosque sponsored a protest rally against the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. On Monday, half a dozen young men with cellphones worked in its library, organizing a drive to collect money, blood plasma and volunteers to fight alongside the Palestinians. Sitting among them was the mosque's imam, Ehsan Habibullah.

"Afghanistan is the land of holy warriors. We feel the pain of the innocent Palestinians, and we will stand with them to the end," Habibullah said. "Israel is a terrorist state, and the Americans are supporting it, so how can they claim to be against terrorism? In Afghanistan, they are bombing civilians and setting dogs against women and children. They are not killing al-Qaeda -- they are killing us."

Like Muslims in many parts of the world, Afghans have expressed grief and outrage at the Israeli military incursion into Gaza, their emotions stoked by TV coverage. In the past week, protests have erupted in spots as remote as Badakhshan, in the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains.

Afghans' reaction to the escalating Middle East conflict, however, is set apart by their country's uneasy partnership with the United States, which has sent tens of thousands of troops to secure Afghanistan since the overthrow of the extreme Islamist Taliban regime in late 2001 and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild its devastated economy and institutions.

Over the past two years, the Afghan populace's initially welcoming attitude toward U.S. troops has soured, in part because the international coalition forces here have failed to quell rising criminal and insurgent violence and in part because of civilian casualties during bombing raids and alleged violations of Afghan traditions by U.S. ground troops in conflict zones.

Now, the Israeli attack on Gaza, widely seen here as an act of aggression enabled by the United States, has become conflated in the minds of some Afghans with U.S. motives and actions in Afghanistan. Taliban propaganda and sermons by conservative clerics have contributed to a notion of the United States as an occupying power that seeks to subjugate the Muslim world.

"We have cable TV, and we know what the Americans are doing," said Mehrabuddin Ali, a baker in a working-class Kabul district. "First they attacked Iraq. They didn't find any nuclear weapons, but they killed a lot of Muslims. Now they are supporting Israel in killing innocent Palestinians. If they have come here to help us, we will welcome them. But if they come to destroy us, we will drive them out like we drove out the Russians. Real Muslims only need the protection of God."

Other Afghans interviewed this week complained bitterly that after seven years, neither the government of President Hamid Karzai nor its American backers had brought the country security, jobs or better living standards. Some said the United States had acted from selfish motives. Others said it was concerned only with defeating al-Qaeda or was inviting insurgent violence by its highly visible military campaign.

"The Americans have been here for all these years, and what did they bring us? Nothing. People are hungry and jobless, and the Taliban are back," said Hajji Zalmai, 61, a vegetable-stand owner sorting onions on the sidewalk. "In my whole life, I never heard of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan until the Americans and this government came. What do they really want with us?"

This growing suspicion and disgruntlement, exacerbated by the latest Middle East crisis, comes just as U.S. officials are planning a major increase in the number of troops here and an ambitious new strategy to win over public support by aggressively attacking the insurgents, engaging local leaders and providing sustained aid to villages to counter Taliban influence.

U.S. military officials here say one of their major tasks will be to reverse the growing public perceptions that U.S. forces practice indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas, do not respect Muslim traditions such as keeping women hidden from strangers, are inexplicably losing the war against the Taliban, and may abandon Afghanistan as they did after the Soviet military occupation ended in 1989.

Those negative perceptions have strengthened the hand of conservative religious and political leaders here who mistrust the United States, and the fresh perception of U.S. backing for Israel's attack on Palestinian territory has further reinforced their arguments.

"When I preach on Fridays, I tell people we should never attack another country or another religion, and we should expect others to do the same," said Abdul Rauf, the imam at another Kabul mosque, where new posters saying "Down with Israel and its supporters" are taped to the gate. "The Koran says there is only one God, for all people, and that it is forbidden to kill innocents. The Americans shout about human rights, but they are killing human beings."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company