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Image Problem in Afghanistan
Growing Public Hostility to Troops May Hurt U.S. Surge Plans

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 22, 2009

KABUL, Feb. 21 -- The additional 17,000 troops the Obama administration is preparing to send to Afghanistan will face both an aggressive, well-armed Taliban insurgency and an unarmed but equally daunting foe: public opinion.

In more than a dozen interviews across the capital this week, Afghans said that instead of helping to defeat the insurgents and quell the violence that has engulfed their country, more foreign troops will exacerbate the problem.

The comments echoed a recent survey by the BBC and ABC News that found that although 90 percent of Afghans oppose the Taliban, less than half view the United States favorably, a sharp drop from a year ago, and a quarter say attacks on U.S. troops can be justified.

In the interviews, most people said they did not like the Taliban and were terrified of the suicide attacks that often occur in public places. Yet they also spoke with anger and suspicion about the U.S.-led coalition forces -- questioning their motives and bitterly complaining about civilian casualties, home invasions and other alleged abuses they suffer at the hands of the once-welcomed American and NATO troops.

"Bringing in another foreign army is not going to help. They always come here for their own interests, and they always lose. Better to let everyone sit down with the elders and find a way for peace," said Ibrahim Khan, 40, a cargo truck driver from Paktia province. "People are feeling hopeless and afraid, but nobody knows who the enemy is anymore."

The comments came as American military officials here, in an effort to soften public criticism, acknowledged Saturday that U.S. airstrikes in the western province of Herat on Tuesday had killed 13 civilians and three insurgents. A U.S. general traveled to the site to investigate the incident, and the announcement of the results was highly unusual. The United States had initially reported that 15 insurgents were killed, but Afghan officials had disputed the assertion.

The growing negative perception of foreign forces is especially worrisome because U.S. military planners say they are counting on intensified interaction and cooperation with Afghan civilians as a vital complement to their expanded use of ground troops and firepower against the Islamist fighters.

Critics in diplomatic and human rights circles have warned of a conundrum facing the expanded military effort: How can officials protect ground troops from a sophisticated indigenous insurgency without employing more aggressive tactics that will further alienate and antagonize the local populace?

The public disillusionment has several causes, observers said. One is that people see the security situation worsening as the number of foreign troops increases and figure that there must be a connection. Another is that Afghan political leaders, especially President Hamid Karzai, have vehemently denounced coalition bombings that have killed civilians but have been far less outspoken in criticizing Taliban attacks; Karzai often refers to the Taliban as brothers.

"People are getting conflicting messages," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "They see video clips of Taliban abuses, but the government only talks about coalition bombings. They hear more U.S. troops are coming, but NATO doesn't want to send any. It is a time of great confusion and uncertainty."

After a telephone conversation with President Obama this week, Karzai backed off from his harsh rhetoric about coalition bombings, and the two governments agreed to work more closely on military coordination. A delegation of Afghan officials is traveling to Washington shortly to participate in the new administration's strategic review of its policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In addition to the widely publicized issue of civilian casualties in coalition air raids, Afghans complain about abuses that are less deadly but closer to home. Many this week recounted experiencing, or hearing from relatives, incidents in which foreign troops stormed at night into houses where women and children were present, arrested innocent farmers as suspected insurgents and forced trucks off highways.

"I was driving on the road from Jalalabad last month, and an American military convoy came from the other direction," recalled Mahmad Humayun, who has a small shop that sells women's garments.

"They started flashing their lights at us to slow down, and then they started firing their guns at the road in front of us. This is our country, and these are our roads," he said angrily. "Don't we have the right to drive in peace?"

Humayun's shop is across the street from the Afghan Justice Ministry, which was targeted Feb. 11 in a coordinated assault on three government buildings. He and his neighboring merchants were just unlocking their shops that morning when gunfire erupted. Afghan commandos battled the attackers for nearly four hours before restoring order in the panicked capital.

"We Afghans are used to fighting but not to these terrible suicide bombings," said a watchmaker in the market, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was afraid. "Our fear is that if more foreign troops come, there will be more suicide bombings and the violence will get worse. We appreciate the Americans' help, but they should send their soldiers to the borders near Pakistan, where the trouble is from. When they hurt civilians, it creates more hate."

Most of the Afghans interviewed said they would prefer a negotiated settlement with the insurgents to an intensified military campaign. Several pointed out that the Taliban fighters are fellow Afghans and Muslims, and that the country has traditionally settled conflicts through community and tribal meetings.

Afghans are closely following the progress of a peace agreement in Pakistan between the government and a group of Taliban fighters in the scenic northwest Swat Valley. Under the deal, which was announced Monday but has yet to be finalized, the fighters would curtail their campaign of violence in exchange for strict Islamic law being instituted in the region.

Critics in Pakistan and abroad say the agreement will provide radical Islamist groups with a steppingstone to imposing their religious ideology on the country, but others see it as a possible model for Afghanistan. The U.S. special envoy to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, has warned that the deal might be tantamount to a government "surrender," but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this week that under the right conditions, "we would be very open" to a Swat-like deal for Afghanistan.

Observers here also said that despite concerns, most Afghans still want foreign troops to stay, because they recognize that the troops' departure could usher in a new era of civil conflict, chaos and warlordism. They may not be happy with the troops' behavior, the argument goes, but they realize that the alternative would be worse.

"Nobody likes fighting, and there are terrible things happening in this fight between the Taliban and the government," said Mohammed Wardak, 45, a cart puller in Kabul, adding that U.S. forces raided his native village in Wardak province three months ago, rounded up all the men and killed several, including a poor potato farmer. "We just want to feel secure and to live in peace under the flag of Islam."

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