A Protection or a Provocation?

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 3, 2009

QARABAGH, Afghanistan -- The last time Taliban forces swept across the Shomali Plain, they left behind a wasteland of scorched vineyards and decapitated fruit trees that farmers have spent the past eight years nursing back to life.

Now, the inhabitants of this fertile region north of Kabul are fearful that the whirlwind will come again, destroying their hopes and hard work. Yet they are deeply conflicted about whether American and NATO troops should remain here to defend them, or whether the Western forces are exacerbating problems that Afghans should settle among themselves.

These growing concerns echo the urgent debate taking place in Washington, where policymakers are sharply divided on whether to commit more troops to Afghanistan or pull them out, as well as on how to define the mission -- as an effort to shore up Afghanistan's troubled democracy or to focus more narrowly on killing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

"If the foreigners leave, one man will just set fire to the next man's house," said Mirza Mahmad, 50, who was playing marbles with his grandson in this central Shomali town. "When I was a soldier, we defeated the Russians with old clothes and borrowed bullets, and they got stuck in the mud of Afghanistan. We need the Americans, but if they don't win the trust of the people, they will get stuck here in the mud forever."

Like many other Afghans who have survived years of conflict and hardship, Shomalis express both resentment of the foreign military presence and bitterness that the United States abandoned their country after Soviet forces left in 1989. Some, with harsh memories of Taliban abuses, still call members of the Islamist militia fellow Muslims who should be given a second chance.

They also fear another source of violence, even closer to home. Tensions surrounding the Aug. 20 presidential election, still bogged down in fraud allegations with no winner declared, have stirred up old enmities among former militia bosses who peacefully divided up power after the Taliban defeat. Now, residents warn, these men could go back to war in a heartbeat.

Signs of trouble are already appearing in the political void across Afghanistan, as people wait anxiously for two commissions to investigate the election fraud charges and announce the final results. Campaign workers and government officials have been targeted in an atmosphere of rising partisanship and criminality as well as terrorism.

In northern Afghanistan, there have been reports of police turning their weapons over to the Taliban and of rival officials arming their followers, either to defend President Hamid Karzai's expected victory or to violently protest the likely defeat of his major challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

"This election has created nothing but tension, and the whole country has been divided into two camps," said Haroun Mir, executive director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. "Everything has become so politicized that I don't think a technical solution will help. Only a political solution will prevent things from collapsing now."

Although nerves are on edge across Afghanistan, Mir described the Shomali region as exceptionally volatile, full of hidden weapons and factional bosses with much riding on the election outcome. All these groups oppose the Taliban but fear losing land, water and lucrative official posts to rival factions. Some still live for a "holy war," whether it is against the insurgents, the Americans or one another.

In Qarabagh's fruit market this week, passionate but contradictory opinions abounded. A grape seller named Hayat Khan recounted how marauding Taliban forces had once burned down his house and thrown him into jail. In the next breath, however, he complained that Western troops were "killing innocent civilians" and declared that "all Afghan Muslims want them to leave. The Taliban are Muslims, too." He added: "We hope this time they will behave differently from the past."

A melon vendor named Turan Amoor complained that as Western influence has grown in Afghanistan, "we have begun to see the open faces of women in the bazaars and a lot of un-Muslim activities."

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