KABUL — A growing number of Afghans say they have come to see a quick U.S. pullout as the best of bad options, a shift in line with Americans’ increasing disapproval of the decade-long war.
The sentiment follows a shooting rampage Sunday, allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier, and an attack Tuesday in which an Afghan government delegation visiting the same village came under fire from suspected Taliban fighters.
“When the Americans first came, it was people like me who welcomed them,” said Abdul Jabar, 28, a truck driver from Kandahar. “Now they are killing our women and children.”
In the early years of the war, Jabar said, when slow-driving U.S. military convoys on the road between Kabul and Kandahar wouldn’t let him and other drivers pass, he was patient, seeing the inconveniences of a foreign military coalition as the price of security. That calculus shifted gradually over time but changed dramatically over the past few weeks, he said. The burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers last month and the deaths of 16 civilians in the shootings Sunday have left him craving vengeance.
Jabar said he wouldn’t be satisfied “if the American gets killed — even if 20 Americans get killed,” referring to the punishment he deemed appropriate to avenge the deaths of nine children and seven adults in Kandahar province.
Many educated, urban Afghans have worried that an abrupt pullout of U.S. troops could create an opening for the Taliban to return to power, plunging Afghanistan back into international isolation and abject poverty. The recent events, though, have led some of them to rethink the wisdom of a prolonged international military presence, even if an exit puts the country’s continued development and modernization on the line.
Farid Maqsudi, a prominent Afghan American businessman, said the burning of the Korans and Sunday’s shootings have convinced him that a swift withdrawal is the best course of action.
“The point of no return has been long overdue,” said Maqsudi, a founding member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Afghanistan who has had close personal and commercial ties to U.S. officials in Afghanistan over the past decade. “The sooner the responsibility shifts to the Afghans, the better it would be for all stakeholders.”
In the attack Tuesday, two brothers of President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped the Taliban ambush as they were leaving a mosque in Balandi, a tiny village in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province where the rampage took place. An Afghan soldier protecting the government delegation was fatally shot, provincial officials said.
A few hundred Afghans took to the streets in the eastern city of Jalalabad on Tuesday to demand that the U.S. soldier held in the Sunday shootings be tried in an Afghan court. In Kandahar city, hundreds of students attended a memorial for the victims, and many called for the prompt prosecution of the soldier.
“He has to be punished,” said Hazrat Mir Totakhil, the dean of Kandahar University. “That was the demand of the students.”
The type of riots and protests that followed the burning of the Korans would be counterproductive in this case, Totakhil said, because “the enemy would take advantage of that.”
Seeking to capitalize on the anger at the shootings, the Taliban on Tuesday issued its third and most detailed statement on the incident, threatening to behead foreign “murderous sadistic troops in every corner of the country.” The statement said that residents of Kandahar have not reacted more viscerally and violently to the killings because local officials co-opted by the U.S. government have told them to stand down.
“They have banned the courageous people of Kandahar and the country from taking to the streets,” the statement said, calling that “rubbing salt on the victim’s wounds.”
The Koran burning triggered a week-long spate of riots and prompted members of the Afghan security forces to fatally shoot a handful of U.S. soldiers. The reaction to the killings Sunday has been more subdued because the desecration of Korans is seen as an affront to Muslims worldwide and because the loss of civilian life at the hands of foreign troops has become somewhat routine, Afghans said in interviews.
“The burning of the Korans was more important because it targeted the foundation of our religion,” said Mawlavi Qiyamuddin Kashaf, head of Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, an assembly of religious scholars.
The council condemned the killings in a statement Tuesday in which it called for an end to night raids by foreign troops on the homes of suspected insurgents.
“Those who consider themselves as the upholders of human rights in the 21st century once again committed a barbaric, inhumane, shameful deed,” said the council, which is seen as closely allied with Karzai’s government. “If this is repeated again, it will be difficult to control people’s sentiments and prevent a general uproar” against foreign troops.
Members of Afghanistan’s Senate echoed that sentiment. Instead of holding sessions inside parliament, lawmakers stood outside on the snow-covered pavement in silent protest of the killings.
“We don’t know anymore who is our friend,” Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, the Senate chairman, said later in an interview. “They are sending mad soldiers to our country and killing our people. Now we don’t see any difference between the Russian forces who killed our innocent people, the terrorists killing our women and children, and the Americans.”
Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.