Hearts, Minds and Body Bags: NATO Battles Rising Hostility in Afghanistan

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The fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan continues this spring. But as the number of civilian casualties rises, support for Western troops is dropping.

The grave is 14 meters long. The white flags with golden characters flutter in the wind at the tops of bamboo poles. The inscriptions are verses from the Koran meant to guide the dead into the afterlife.

The NATO offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan got underway in February. Here, a British helicopter supplying a patrol in the region.
DPA

The NATO offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan got underway in February. Here, a British helicopter supplying a patrol in the region.

Abdullah Shah stands alone in the Da Mirwais mini Hadira cemetery in western Kandahar, his hands raised to the sky. After completing his prayers, the old man strokes his face and his white beard, as ritual requires.

Twenty people are buried beneath the mound of earth at Shah's feet: his wife Miamato, his three sons, 13 grandchildren, two daughters-in-law and a cousin. They died in Lakani, a village in the embattled Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan, at 2:30 in the morning on October 25, 2006. Their lives were extinguished by fire from the 30 mm guns of an American A-10 ground attack aircraft, aka Warthog.

Prior to the killings, helicopters had already been circling the skies over Lakani for days. When the bombs began falling, patriarch Abdullah Shah ordered his family to seek shelter in a remote mud hut. By 2 a.m., when things had calmed down, the family decided to return to the village. But the A-10 gunners, peering through their night-vision goggles, couldn't tell the difference between civilians and fighters. Anything that moved was their target. The orders were clear: The Taliban were to be removed from the region.

Caught between NATO and the Taliban

Abdullah Shah survived the attack because he stayed at home to guard the house. His four-year-old granddaughter Aqida also survived, but she was hit in the spine by a piece of shrapnel and will never walk again. The child is now in Germany. Near the end of last year, the German military flew her to Cologne, where she was first treated in a children's clinic and later taken in by an Afghan couple in Germany. Aqida could be returned to Panjwai by the end of the month -- to a place that has become a war zone caught between NATO and the Taliban.

NATO is concerned about the advance of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
DER SPIEGEL

NATO is concerned about the advance of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

The Western alliance hopes to make this year a turning point in the Afghanistan conflict. With the offensive it launched last week in Helmand Province, the alliance plans to head off its opponents' expected spring offensive. Alliance members agree that the terrorists cannot be allowed to regain control of the country it liberated from the Taliban and al-Qaida. But NATO's double-pronged strategy of reconstruction and military strikes comes at a high price. As civilian casualties mount, so too does animosity against Afghanistan's Western liberators.

Five adults and four young children were killed last Monday in Kapisa Province north of Kabul when a NATO fighter jet dropped a 900-kilogram bomb on a mud house. According to a NATO spokesman, rebels had fired rockets at the NATO base in Kapisa and taken refuge in the building before NATO forces launched their counterattack.

A day earlier, US troops killed nine civilians and wounded 34 bystanders, some critically, on the road to the Torkham border crossing into Pakistan, 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Jalalabad.

"The Americans shot at everything that moved," says an eyewitness who was also wounded. "They aimed at people in cars and at pedestrians." Immediately before the attack, a suicide bomber had been driving a minibus loaded with explosives toward the US patrol.

Human shields

Of the 4,000 people who died violent deaths in Afghanistan last year, about 1,000 were civilians. Most of the victims were killed when Western soldiers found themselves in "complex ambushes," the expression military spokesmen use to describe the Taliban's strategy of using civilians as human shields.

Most of the suicide bombings are also intentionally committed in civilian surroundings, part of their purpose being to create ill will within the population against the foreign troops. The strategy seems to be working, at least in the Pashtun region where very few reconstruction projects have materialized. Last week thousands of angry protestors marched through the streets of Jalalabad, furiously shouting "Death to America! Death to Karzai!"

The fronts of this new war are difficult to define, but it is still -- as Abdullah Shah and his family discovered -- possible to become caught in between them. Shah, a native of Kandahar, is 68 and illiterate, and yet he led his extended family through the country's various crises and periods of unrest for 40 years. His clan survived the Soviet invasion and the civil war in the early 1990s. He even reached an understanding with the Taliban, even if the Islamists forced him to hand over one of his sons for the fight. Had he not done so, he would have been driven from his land.

Now, though, Abdullah Shah's farm in Lakani is abandoned. The chickens, sheep and cows are gone, and Shah doesn't even know whether they were stolen or simply ran away. Distant relatives in a neighboring village have taken him in temporarily.

Caught as they are in the middle of the conflict between the Taliban and international forces, life has become difficult for the residents of southern Afghanistan, who don't know to whom they should turn for protection. The government is too weak, NATO is often fighting primarily to preserve its own security and the Taliban is infiltrating the villages.

Key to Afghan opium production

"If there is to be a spring offensive, it must be our offensive," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in late January at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. That offensive began last Tuesday at 5 a.m. local time, when 5,500 troops -- the British, Canadians, Dutch, Americans and 1,000 Afghans -- launched "Operation Achilles" in the southern Helmand Province, a predominantly Pashtun region. The aim of the NATO operation, led by Dutch Major General Ton van Loon, is to liberate villages in the region from extremist rule. The area is key to Afghan opium production and is one of the Taliban's most important strategic and economic bases.

Five months ago, the British signed a regional truce after heavy fighting and many losses. Under the terms of the agreement, tribal elders agreed to keep the Taliban out of the region. But when the British withdrew, the agreement fell apart and, by early February, the Taliban were back in control.

From his hideout in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's one-legged military leader, recently issued the self-confident announcement that 6,000 fighters were ready for the spring offensive. That number is said to include up to 2,000 suicide bombers.

Likely, much of this is propaganda meant to make the allied troops nervous. At 40, Mullah Dadullah is already one of the Taliban's more seasoned veterans. He is considered especially violent and is known to have ordered videotaped beheadings of "infidels" and "collaborators" alike as a scare tactic. His boastful announcements are intended primarily to intimidate NATO and the government in Kabul. At the same time, he hopes to encourage young Pashtun men, among the country's poorest residents, to join the fighters. It has also become difficult for the Taliban, which has lost hundreds of fighters, to recruit new blood each year.

Abudullah Shah lost 21 members of his family during a NATO bombing run.
AP

Abudullah Shah lost 21 members of his family during a NATO bombing run.

In the 1980s, the Taliban's predecessors, the mujaheddin, found popular support for their struggle against the Soviet invaders. But today, few families are willing to sacrifice their sons. They sense that the international troop presence, as unpopular as it is, is probably their last best chance to escape a vicious cycle of oppression and poverty. Nevertheless, many face a daily struggle to survive, creating a perfect climate for recruiting mercenaries. If they are to fight, many Afghans reason, it will mainly be for money. The Taliban currently offers 30,000 Afghani a month -- roughly €500 -- and a motorcycle to those willing to fight for pay. The government in Kabul pays its civil servants --- teachers and police officers alike -- barely €50 a month.

Tribal leaders, feudal lords

The new offensive in Helmand will also serve as an acid test for whether the Western allies can continue their reconstruction projects in the most fiercely contested regions of the country. More than five years after the US invasion, Afghanistan is still among the world's poorest countries, a place where countless people live like slaves indebted to warring tribal leaders or feudal lords.

The main objective of the new NATO offensive is to secure the Sangin Valley and the Kajaki dam in northern Helmand Province. If the plan succeeds, they hope to repair a major power plant that could supply electricity to almost 2 million Afghans. The NATO-led ISAF troops, and even the Americans, have now realized that they can only win the "hearts and minds" of their Afghan allies by significantly improving their standard of living.

The Taliban, for its part, is trying to impede technological progress at all costs, knowing full well that its power will dissipate as soon as Afghans see improvements in their lives or be able to find jobs. But if the extremists manage to up the number of civilians killed in battle, the Afghans will be more likely to stand behind the Taliban.

In short, this is far from a holy war and never was here in the permanently ungovernable south. The Taliban has entered into a strategic alliance with the powerful smuggling mafia that operates between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Far from supporting the establishment of a caliphate, the smugglers are only interested in drugs, weapons, women and holding on to power.

The population, for its part, wants piece -- but is preparing for a lengthy war of attrition. Fear of the international troops is palpable; when a NATO patrol walks around a corner in Kandahar, every child remains frozen in place. The Afghans know that any unexpected movement could produce a deadly reaction. Most young NATO soldiers sit in their armor-clad vehicles, their fingers on the triggers of their machine guns, watching the outside world on a monitor. A red target marks every potential danger -- and death is never more than two clicks away.

US Vice President Dick Cheney and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in February. The Americans have lost a lot of credibility in the country.
AFP

US Vice President Dick Cheney and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in February. The Americans have lost a lot of credibility in the country.

Just what the foreign soldiers are good for is difficult for the rural population to tell. They speed through the dusty landscape in their outlandish vehicles, periodically engage the enemy, and then return to their fortified bases. In the strategically important Panjwai district in Kandahar Province, entire villages have been leveled because Taliban fighters were using them for cover.

Convenient targets

Poor security is still the Afghans' biggest problem. The police, rarely on hand when they are needed, make convenient targets for the Taliban, interested as they are in intimidating the locals. Miserably trained and poorly paid or not paid at all, Afghanistan's police officers often abuse their power to extort bribes from the very people they are meant to protect. It's a situation that results in many villagers preferring to see the Taliban keep the peace. They say that although the Taliban may not have brought development to the country, it did provide stability. The current government has been able to offer neither.

Examples are many. Since the Taliban government was thrown out in late 2001, many rural areas no longer have judges to address the countless disputes over land or water. Cases of murder or robbery go unpunished. In some places where the Taliban has regained control, many believe that harsh justice is better than no justice at all. And those places are multiplying. The Taliban has already recaptured entire regions in the southern Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul provinces, and it is also making inroads in the country's east, primarily in the Khost region, and in Paktia and Paktika provinces. Taliban fighters infiltrate these areas in small groups, either from neighboring Pakistan or from the Hindu Kush Mountains, forcing villagers to hide them in their houses -- and turning local residents into human shields.

Anyone suspected of cooperating with the government in Kabul or with foreign troops lives in mortal danger. In the space of just 10 days last month, extremists murdered seven government officials in the city of Kandahar, including two mullahs and two lower-ranking police officials. The murderers waited for their victims on motorcycles in front of their houses and shot them with Kalashnikovs as they drove to work in the morning. Not even the employees of public transportation companies can feel safe. Anyone seen as a collaborator risks being punished.

Meanwhile, the increasingly courageous members of private aid organizations are demonstrating that development and reconstruction are possible in war zones. Senlis Council, a British aid organization, provides assistance to refugees throughout most of the country's southern portion. German engineers recently completed an important 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) connecting road in the embattled Panjwai district. Non-governmental organizations are offering their assistance to anyone, friend or foe. It's a strategy that usually works, but not always. Last week, unknown assailants shot and killed German aid worker Dieter Rübling, who had worked for Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action), in Sar-i-pul in northern Afghanistan.

British soldiers battling the Taliban at the end of January.
DPA/Leading Airman Gaz Faulkner

British soldiers battling the Taliban at the end of January.

It's a difficult balance and the challenge facing NATO is huge. On the one hand, it must prevent the Taliban from recapturing the country. On the other hand, it cannot afford to gamble away its last remaining support among the population. As have the Americans. Once celebrated as liberators, the US has largely lost its credibility among Afghan civilians as a result of its not-always considerate behavior. Now the Europeans are likewise on the verge of losing respect.

This dilemma sometimes prompts diplomats and military officials in Kabul to consider radically new approaches. "Why don't the Americans pull out altogether and leave reconstruction to the Europeans?" high-ranking European officials ask themselves in private. But they don't dare express their ideas openly -- for fear that someone could actually take them seriously.

Toothless groom

But if the numbers of civilian casualties cannot be reduced, the West could face a serious backlash in Afghanistan. Widower Abdullah Shah, who lost almost his entire family to NATO fire, has become something of a symbol in that struggle. When his fate became known throughout the country, President Hamid Karzai met with Shah in Kabul. Karzai sent him on a pilgrimage to Mecca and made arrangements for his paralyzed granddaughter Aqida to receive treatment in Germany.

Abdullah Shah took advantage of his meeting with the president to ask Karzai who would compensate him for the loss of his family. Karzai offered Shah two pieces of property and encouraged him to look for a new wife and remarry. Since then the widower has been in negotiations for the hand of his new bride-to-be. The woman he has chosen is only around 30 years old, and because of the advanced age of the now largely toothless groom, her family is demanding a high price: 800,000 Afghanis, or about €12,000.

"Men are always in such a hurry," the Afghan president said when asked by SPIEGEL whether he would pay Abdullah Shah's bride money. "I promised him I would, and I will keep my promise."

The Afghans are apparently capable of solving at least some of their problems in their own way -- the way they have been doing it for centuries.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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