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The flaming of Afghan resentment


June 01, 2006

LONDON - Soldiers cautiously patrol the streets of Kabul, and a nighttime curfew helps keep tempers in check. The worst of the fighting between U.S. soldiers and angry Afghans seems to be over after an American military convoy crashed into a crowd, killing several civilians on Monday.

But a feeling persists that the widespread riots represent a worrying new development, and a possible turning point in efforts to bring stability to this war-ravaged country. If the people of Kabul, who have provided the strongest support for the presence of international soldiers, are chanting "Death to America," how can the rest of the country be stabilized?

"We are worried how quickly the protests will spread to other areas," admitted a retired British colonel in London familiar with mission.




Kabul was supposed to be different. It is the first time a curfew has been imposed since the last of the Taliban were chased away on their motorcycles. Anti-American riots are extremely rare. The international community has successfully managed to capitalize on the goodwill of the capital's war-weary residents, who welcomed soldiers and aid workers.

But the images of young men shaving their beards and joyously greeting their Western liberators now seem like ancient history compared to the burning of aid agencies this week.

It is an indication of the disillusionment many Afghans feel at the failure of the West to rebuild their country. The two democratic elections have not brought people basic necessities: jobs, decent housing, sanitation and electricity. There is little economic development in the capital except for hotels and restaurants serving steak to rich expatriates.

"People are unhappy because the government did not give them what they promised," one Afghan resident said in a telephone interview from Kabul. The 28-year-old office administrator, who did not want to be identified, described how his colleagues sheltered in the corridor of their workplace as the rioters outside destroyed shops and offices.

"It was very sad, it reminds me of the old days of the fighting and the civil war," he said. "Afghans who came from the West to help the country, even they weren't immune to attacks. The protesters beat them on the streets, tore their clothes and told them to go back home. We thought this time was an opportunity finally for peace and the foreigners would help us."

The anti-war movement in the West frequently lumps Afghanistan and Iraq together as "occupations." The traditional divisions between the pacifist left and hawkish right are irrelevant on the ground in Afghanistan.

The resentment stems not from the presence of too many soldiers, but from there not being enough to make a difference to reconstruction. Afghanistan's recent history shows that unless benevolent powers invest in and nurture the country, it will revert to a failed state. The rise of the Taliban supported and financed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is the most recent example.

The insurgency is becoming bolder. In the past two weeks, 400 people have been killed in fighting.

The wavering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over showing a strong commitment is largely to blame.

About 15,000 NATO soldiers are expected to take over from the Americans, but a minimum of 19,000 are needed to bolster reconstruction and make a serious dent in the insurgency. The 2,300 Canadians in Kandahar and the British mission in next-door Helmand province are not enough.

A Taliban takeover of the south is no longer impossible. As if to underline that point, early yesterday morning the Taliban seized a village in southern Uruzgan province. The night before, a dozen police officers were killed when a rocket hit their car in neighbouring Zabul.

European politicians do not want to risk sending their soldiers where they might die. Everyone wants to take credit for girls returning to school and farmers planting wheat. But few are willing to take the difficult steps that would pave the way to make that happen.

In the meantime, the resentment increases.

As the office administrator in Kabul put it, "People are angry and looking for someone to blame."


Hamida Ghafour is a London-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail. She previously reported from Afghanistan and is currently writing a book, "The Sleeping Buddha: In Search of Afghanistan," which will be published next year. Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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