By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 2, 2009
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ALTIMUR, Afghanistan -- The U.S. soldiers entered the sleeping village in Logar province in the dead of night on Feb. 20, sure of their target and heavily armed. They surrounded a mud-walled compound, shouting commands, and then kicked down the gate as cries of protest erupted within.
Exactly what happened next is disputed, but shots were fired and a man inside fell dead. Four other men were grabbed and arrested. Then the soldiers departed, leaving the women to calm the frightened children and the rumors to spread in the dark.
By midmorning, hundreds of angry people were blocking the nearby highway, burning tires and shouting "Death to America!" By mid-evening, millions of Afghan TV news viewers were convinced that foreign troops had killed an unarmed man trying to answer his door.
"We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are more afraid of the Americans now," said Abdul Ghaffar, a truck driver in the raided village. "The foreign forces are killing innocent people. We don't want them in Afghanistan. If they stay, one day we will stand against them, just like we stood against the Russians."
Tactically, the U.S.-led night raid in the village of Bagh-i-Soltan was a success. U.S. military officials said the dead man and an accomplice now in custody were bombmakers linked to recent insurgent attacks. They said that they had tracked the men for days and that one was holding an assault rifle when they shot him.
Strategically, however, the incident was a disaster. Its most incriminating version -- colored by villagers' grief and anger, possibly twisted by Taliban propaganda and magnified by the growing influence of independent Afghan TV -- spread far faster than U.S. authorities could even attempt to counter.
Worse, it happened in an area where the Obama administration has just launched an expensive military push, focusing on regions near Kabul, the capital, where Islamist insurgents are trying to gain influence. Several U.S. bases have been set up in Logar and adjacent Wardak province, and 3,000 troops have arrived since January. Their mandate is to strengthen security, facilitate aid projects and good government, and swing local opinion against the insurgents.A Wide Gulf
Logar sits in a historically peaceful valley an hour's drive south of Kabul, surrounded by craggy mountains. Brown and bleak in winter, it is green and bucolic in summer, with wheat fields, orchards and honey that beekeepers sell beside the road. It is also a gateway from southeastern Afghanistan to the capital, straddling one of the few paved highways in the region.
In the past 18 months, Taliban forces have established strongholds in several nearby provinces and a low-key but intimidating presence in Logar. Officials say most Logaris, though frustrated by poor government services, have not yet decided where their loyalties lie. Politically, Logar is still up for grabs.
"This is a fertile area for us to plant the seeds of opportunity, but there are a lot of fence-sitters, and everyone is vying for the populace," said Lt. Col. Daniel Goldthorpe, who commands the U.S. Army base at Altimur in Logar, about 30 miles south of Bagh-i-Soltan.
The newly built base is a cluster of heated tents and wood cabins on a rocky plain, surrounded by dirt-filled barricades and a distant cordon of snowcapped mountains. It houses about 600 troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, whose duties include search raids, security patrols and goodwill missions in nearby villages.
Goldthorpe acknowledged that the fallout from the raid in Bagh-i-Soltan was a surprising setback for the U.S. forces' image here. But he attributed the public unrest to superior Taliban propaganda efforts and strongly denied that any misconduct occurred during the raid.
"We did everything to the letter, but their media was a lot faster than ours," he said. "When a tree falls in the forest, the first to report the sound gets their version out. This was a huge learning curve for us and an important exercise in credibility."
But interviews with local residents, Afghan officials and U.S. military officers since the raid suggest that the problem was more complex than one side putting out a quicker news flash. The incident occurred amid deepening national hostility to American and NATO forces and growing complaints about coalition bombings and night raids.
Logar officials, like area residents, seemed inclined to believe the worst. U.S. officials said some were afraid to publicly side with the Americans, and other local officials said they had not been told of the raid by their superiors in Kabul, whom U.S. officials said they had briefed.
U.S. officials were also constrained from fully explaining their actions or making amends afterward. Intelligence sources could not be revealed. Daytime visits to villages required advance security planning and transport in monster vehicles armored against roadside bombs and rockets, hampering the troops' ability to make personal contact quickly.
A week after the raid, even though U.S. officials had by then met with village elders and released all but one detainee, emotions in Bagh-i-Soltan were still running high, and the raided compound was full of condolence callers. The gulf between the resentful residents and the eager-to-help soldiers seemed as wide as the brown winter plain.Divergent Accounts
The first version of the raid, and the one that has stuck in the public mind, came from Mullah Abdul Mateen, the owner of the raided house. He told reporters the next day that heavily armed Americans had burst into the sleeping household, shot at his younger brother, herded the women and children into a room, then handcuffed and taken away several more brothers and a cousin.
"We are not terrorists or al-Qaeda. I am not hiding from anyone. There was no reason for the Americans to do this," Mateen, 35, said in an interview last week. "The Americans got the wrong information from an Afghan spy. If they continue killing and arresting innocent people, the anger against them will increase."
The provincial governor, Atiqullah Ludin, also bitterly criticized the U.S. forces, saying they had promised to avoid civilian casualties and to conduct all house raids accompanied by Afghan troops. "Now what can I tell the people of Logar?" Ludin said in apparent anguish last week. "We have to build their trust or the enemies of Afghanistan will take advantage of it."
A very different description of the raid came from U.S. officers who carried it out. They said they were accompanied by Afghan military and intelligence officers. One was Army Maj. Todd Polk, a squad leader based at Altimur.
Polk said there was solid evidence that the dead man, identified as Sher Agha, and a second man detained in the raid possessed explosives-making materials and had helped organize a recent bomb attack on a French military facility in Logar. He said both men had been tracked to Mateen's house and a neighboring compound.
"I was there, and I can tell you for a fact what happened," Polk said in an interview last week. He said Agha "had an AK-47 in his hand and was trying to get away" when he was shot by U.S. forces. "If he were innocent, he would have sat there."
Like other U.S. officers here, Polk said that the protests afterward were probably instigated by the Taliban and that residents would not have objected had they known the facts that led to the raid. He also expressed frustration over the lack of communication between Afghan security officials in Kabul and Logar.
At a routine meeting with two local police officials last week, Polk was attempting to discuss highway safety issues when the officers changed the subject. Polite but uneasy, they asked why the Americans had broken down Mateen's door, why they had shot someone and why no one had informed their commander in advance about the raid.
"If you had come and asked us, we could have brought him to you, and there would be no trouble," Capt. Mohammed Wahidullah told Polk, speaking through an interpreter. "Instead we had to go out on the highway the next day, with thousands of people shouting and cursing us. You didn't need to take all those vehicles and people to raid that house. You just needed to make one call."
Polk told the police he would take the suggestion to his superiors, but it was evident that he remained skeptical of the policemen's sincerity -- and convinced that the Taliban insurgents, with their ability to intimidate people and whip up Afghans' emotions against foreign armies, were the real cause of the backlash.
"I know we did the right thing, but the Taliban kicked our butts on the response," the major said, shaking his head. "Next time, we just have to be faster putting out the truth."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Logar province contributed to this report.