Afghan Anger at Taliban, U.S. Apology Deflect Outrage Over Lethal Airstrike

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 7 -- When U.S. warplanes bombed two stolen fuel trucks in northern Afghanistan early Friday, causing an explosion that incinerated civilians as well as insurgent fighters, the incident could easily have turned into a propaganda opportunity for the Taliban.

Instead, popular and official reaction to the lethal airstrike has been far more tolerant than after similar past incidents. There have been no angry demonstrations against Western occupiers, and no blistering condemnation by President Hamid Karzai or local authorities. So far, not even the families of the dead have come forward to protest.

This time, according to human rights activists and foreign diplomats, rising Afghan anger toward the Taliban in the once-tranquil north, a swift public apology by U.S. military officials and national preoccupation with a troubled presidential election have combined to deflect popular outrage over the bombing.

"There has been a marked difference in the way the U.S. military dealt with this incident. Instead of arguing about the number of casualties, as has happened often in the past, they recognized the Afghan perception and addressed it," said a senior U.N. official here. "This is very heartening, and it bodes well for the coming months as this conflict inevitably continues."

Within 24 hours, the senior U.S. military commander here, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, visited the site of the bombed trucks in Kunduz province and then delivered a personal message on Afghan television, expressing his concern and promising a full investigation.

"Just showing his face helped a lot," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

However, the U.S. public relations effort was undercut Monday when a Swedish charity accused American soldiers of storming into its clinic in central Wardak province, breaking down doors and tying up staff members in a search for insurgents. Such intrusive and rough tactics have contributed to growing Afghan hostility toward foreign forces. A U.S. military spokesman said the incident was under investigation.

In previous airstrikes that killed civilians, U.S. military officials here have tended to stonewall for days, issuing vague statements and disputing accounts by witnesses and survivors, while public anger and hostility mounted. Taliban spokesmen have typically portrayed the events as atrocities committed by infidel foreign invaders.

After the Kunduz bombing, a Taliban Web site went into action, lambasting it as "a deliberate act of mass killing" by "the cruel crusaders" of the Obama administration, who it said had slaughtered 150 villagers, including women and children. In a deft role reversal, the group appealed to the United Nations and international human rights organizations to condemn the attack.

But this time, the tactic seemed to fall flat. In part this was because officials in Kunduz, instead of expressing outrage against the foreign forces, blamed the insurgents for provoking the bombing and even suggested that the civilians who died were Taliban sympathizers. There is no confirmed total death toll, but estimates by U.S. and Afghan officials range from 70 to more than 100.

According to one privately circulated report by international observers here, some Kunduz officials said the villagers were all "relatives" of the insurgents and were "equally guilty" because they were looting fuel from the tankers when they died. The report said no families of the victims had lodged formal complaints, suggesting possible complicity.

Other accounts painted a murkier, more complex picture of both the incident and the political environment in which it took place. Nadery, whose group sent investigators to the scene, said a group of about 20 Taliban fighters had roused the villagers late at night, using a combination of "threats and persuasion" to enlist their help in moving the trucks, while allowing them to siphon off the fuel. The bombs fell at 2:30 a.m. as villagers swarmed around the tankers.

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