Taleban Attacks Inflame Anti-Western feeling

 Insurgents see civilian casualties in urban bombings as way of fueling resentment of international forces.
By Habiburrahman Ibrahimi - Afghanistan
ARR Issue 364,
17 Jun 10

The Taleban may be calculating that attacking foreign troops within Kabul, with the civilian casualties that are inevitable, could turn public feeling further against the coalition military presence.

Twelve Afghan civilians were killed and 48 wounded on May 18 when suicide bombers struck a convoy of foreign forces travelling through Darulaman in western Kabul. Six foreign soldiers were killed in the attack.

The incident, the first major attack in the capital for some three months, sparked anger among locals who argue that the coalition forces endanger civilians by entering heavily populated areas in the capital.

Observers say that the insurgents are trying to stoke anti-western feeling in addition to inflicting casualties on foreign forces.

Assadullah Wahidi, political analyst and chief editor of the Sarnawisht daily newspaper, believes that Taleban suicide attacks are orchestrated with two specific aims in mind.

First, the Taleban want to hurt their main enemies, the foreign troops, he said. But they also want to suggest to Afghan civilians that they are at risk from attacks, and moreover that the international forces are deliberately using them as “human shields”. This tactic seems designed to make people blame foreign forces rather than the insurgents for civilian casualties.

“The principal and strongest reason why people hate the foreign forces is civilian casualties from suicide attacks, roadside bombs, or bombardment,” he said.

“If the foreigners want to reduce this hatred, they should try to prevent civilian casualties, leave the cities, and stop moving through crowded civilian areas.”

Taleban spokesman Zabihollah Mojahed told IWPR in a telephone interview that his forces regretted the deaths of civilians in such incidents, but that they did warn locals to avoid areas frequented by foreigners.

“We have taken up arms to protect our country, religion and people. So how could we kill them?” he said. “Our target is the foreigners, and we attack them wherever we see them.

“If we attack the foreigners in the provinces and districts, they then bombard villages and kill innocent people. If we attack them in the cities, they hide among the civilian population. Now the people need to decide who’s using them as shields and killing them.”

This argument certainly seems to have convinced some Kabul residents, with accusations that coalition forces are deliberately putting the capital’s five million people residents in harm’s way.

“Both the foreign forces and the terrorists intentionally use the people as shields,” said Nurolhaq Olumi, the head of the defence committee of the Lower House of parliament. “Why do the foreigners hide among the people and cause deaths when they know that they are going to be attacked?”

Olumi, a member of parliament for Kandahar, said there was no need for foreign forces to patrol through any city in the country.

“I’m not sure whether they are protecting the people or using them to protect themselves,” he added.

Argued that the number of civilian casualties would fall if the foreign military avoided moving through built-up areas, Olumi said international forces had failed to deliver on past promises to stop doing so.

A spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, Zemarai Bashari said that since an agreement with the NATO-led ISAF force two years ago, foreign troops had ended patrols of urban areas and handed over to the police and national army .

“The foreign vehicles seen in the cities belong to advisors going to work every day,” he said, adding, “We will continue efforts to reduce travel by advisors through crowded areas, to ensure the terrorists are unable to hit civilians.”

Bashari said it was the Taleban and al-Qaeda who were responsible for most civilian casualties.

“It’s the terrorists who carry out suicide attacks among civilians and inflict casualties. If they are Muslims, they should not do so,” he said.

Lieutentant-Colonel Todd Vician from ISAF’s Joint Command emphasised that security efforts in Kabul were led by the Afghan government and provided by its police, intelligence service and military.

“ISAF's Regional Command Capital partners with local forces, but the Afghans are clearly in the lead,” he said. “In fact, the recent successful finds of caches and arrests have been led, planned and carried out by Afghan security forces.”

He added that the May 18 attacks had not targeted an ISAF unit on patrol, but rather a group of vehicles traveling from one installation to another. Expressing sympathy at the civilian deaths, Vician stressed that the insurgents would continue to attack Kabul residents whether or not foreign troops were in the city.

“These attacks are meant to generate local and international media attention, and they have targeted government facilities and international organisations as often as they have attacked ISAF forces or facilities,” he said. “We are constantly adjusting our operations to limit the inconvenience to Kabul residents and reduce opportunities for insurgents to attack, but these attacks are indiscriminate and often kill and injure innocent people, which shows that the insurgents do not care who they hurt to further their extremist cause.”

The issue of civilian casualties has long been a highly sensitive point of contention between the Afghan government and the international forces.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reports that 1,442 civilians were killed in different incidents in 2009. The casualties included 403 men, 269 children and 118 women along with others who could not be identified. According to the report, 60 per cent died in suicide and roadside bomb attacks and 40 per cent were killed by international forces. The commission emphasises that these figures cannot be accurate as its staff is only able to gather data in areas where they have access.

The head of the Kabul-based Afghan Human Rights Organisation, Lalgol – who like many Afghans goes by one name – said his group had expressed its concerns to the foreign forces, Afghan officials and the Taleban.

“We believe that any action that inflicts civilian casualties is to be seen as a violation of human rights. However, it seems that the foreign forces use the people as shields more than the Taleban,” he said.

He said military vehicles in urban areas not only heightened the risk of suicide attacks, but also blocked traffic and disrupted life.

“We have information that when intersections are closed by foreign forces, patients [en route to hospital] have lost their lives in traffic jams,” he added.

Political scientist and writer Wahid Mozhda says that the Afghan national army and police are capable of protecting cities and there is therefore no need for foreign troops to be moving around there.

“The foreign forces use the people as shields. They have established military camps inside the cities when there’s no need for these, and their convoys patrol here and there,” he said.

Some Kabul residents, too, accuse foreign forces of causing civilian casualties intentionally.

Rahimollah, 40, who lost his cousin in the Darulaman attack, said angrily, “The communists used to say that westerners, particularly the Americans, were world-eating imperialists. That used to puzzle us, but we now we see it – these western, wild people are real world-eaters, and bloodthirsty.

“I tell them that we don’t want or need their deceptive gifts like democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. Don’t harm us any more, and get out of our country.”

Ehsanollah, 25, a resident of the Microrayon area of Kabul, said, “In the provinces, people are unable to sleep because of their wild attacks, and people are killed in Kabul city due to their patrols. What kind of human protection or democracy is that?”

He added, “It would be better for these gentlemen who came here in the name of peace to leave the cities and stay within their military bases, or else patrol those areas where the war is going on. Otherwise there can be no security.”

But other residents do blame the Taleban, pointing out that the insurgents could take on the foreign troops on the frontline, away from civilian areas.

“The Taleban are happy to carry out such attacks in the cities,” said Qais, 30, a man from Parwan province who lost his brother Harun in the Darulaman suicide attack. “They want to display their power and show they are in control. Secondly, they want to sow hatred against foreigners among the people.”

Habiburrahman Ibrahimi is an IWPR trainee in Kabul.