Afghan lo­cals turn on Tal­iban as civil­ians die in strikes

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Philip Smucker

GIRISHK, Afghanistan — The Bri­tish com­man­der’s apol­ogy for a bomb­ing raid in which more than 20 civil­ians were killed was de­press­ingly familiar; heart­felt as it was, there have been too many such in­ci­dents.

But when Brig. John Lorimer went on to ac­cuse the Tal­iban of hid­ing among civil­ians and putting them at risk with “cow­ardly ac­tion against your peo­ple,” an in­ter­est­ing thing hap­pened: Dozens of Afghan men nod­ded in agree­ment.

The ex­change, sug­gest­ing progress in the vi­tal bat­tle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan pub­lic, took place two weeks ago at a jirga, an as­sem­bly, with sev­eral hun­dred men, many of them with Tal­iban sym­pa­thies.

Brig. Lorimer, who com­mands Bri­tish forces in Hel­mand, Afghanistan’s most trou­bled prov­ince, set the tone for the out­door meet­ing with his sin­cere state­ment of re­morse for a bomb­ing raid two days ear­lier in which, by Afghan count, 21 civil­ians were killed.

It was at least the third in­ci­dent in re­cent weeks in which Afghan civil­ians were ac­ci­den­tally killed by NATO al­lies and coali­tion troops. U.S. of­fi­cers have apol­o­gized for the losses, but of­ten be­lat­edly and only af­ter the Afghan gov­ern­ment has lashed out at NATO with ac­cu­sa­tions of neg­li­gence and overkill.

“I prom­ise you there will be an end to th­ese civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” said Hel­mand’s gov­er­nor, As­sadul­lah Wafa, who also at­tended the jirga. “The NATO troops won’t re­peat th­ese ac­tions.”

But there is ris­ing ev­i­dence that the Afghan pub­lic is as an­gry with the Tal­iban for such deaths as they are with NATO.

Days af­ter the May 8 air strike, Afghan vil­lage lead­ers killed a Tal­iban com­man­der and two body­guards near the site of the U.S. bomb­ing raid be­cause he re­fused to move his op­er­a­tions out of their neigh­bor­hood, ac­cord­ing to both lo­cal Afghans and West­ern of­fi­cials.

Bri­tish diplo­mats said the elder who or­dered the killing ac­cused the Tal­iban of bring­ing U.S. bombs against lo­cal vil­lages by am­bush­ing U.S. troops from peo­ple’s homes. The elder him­self was killed in re­tal­i­a­tion by Tal­iban fight­ers, the Bri­tish Broad­cast­ing Corp. re­ported.

There have been a few other signs of progress, said Lt. Col. Char­lie Mayo, the Bri­tish NATO spokesman in Hel­mand. “In some ar­eas, we’ve seen the el­ders — hav­ing spot­ted the Tal­iban lay­ing mines — approach them and ask them to re­move th­ese mines.”

Not all Afghans are blam­ing the Tal­iban for civil­ian deaths: The na­tion’s elected se­nate has called for a halt to NATO of­fen­sives.

But some of the men at the jirga, who were pro­vided with new tur­bans and ser­e­naded by a girl’s choir, said they want NATO to take even tougher ac­tion on the ground.

“It has been a long time com­ing, but I’m fi­nally able to re­turn to my home vil­lage af­ter the Tal­iban has been in con­trol of my home for the last two years,” said Boor­aga Barak, who earns about $60 a month as a teacher at a school for young girls in Girishk city.

“I’m wor­ried, though, that the NATO forces aren’t go­ing to fight hard enough. We want all the ar­eas con­trolled by the Tal­iban cleared out sooner and not later.”

For now, the Bri­tish are em­pha­siz­ing the pub­lic re­la­tions side of the strug­gle, hop­ing the con­trast be­tween Tal­iban-run and gov­ern­men­trun ar­eas will per­suade peo­ple to sup­port the gov­ern­ment.

“The Tal­iban need to be care­ful whom they are tar­get­ing,” Col. Mayo said. “When you are see­ing civil­ians killed across the board, that is bound to back­fire. We hope the pop­u­la­tion re­jects their bru­tal­ity.”

While U.S. and al­lied forces fight daily small bat­tles against the Tal­iban, sol­dier-diplo­mats such as Brig. Lorimer work to win over “Tier 2” Tal­iban — mostly im­pov­er­ished farm­ers with no ide­o­log­i­cal in­ter­est in the move­ment — with words and prom­ises of de­vel­op­ment.

“One mea­sure of suc­cess is the abil­ity and will of the Afghan peo­ple to deny the en­emy, the Tal­iban, room to ma­neu­ver,” said David Slinn, Bri­tain’s se­nior re­gional co­or­di­na­tor in Hel­mand.

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Afghan po­lice­men stand guard at the site of a bomb blast, in Kan­da­har on May 17. A dou­ble bomb­ing tore through the cen­ter of Afghanistan’s south­ern city, killing seven se­cu­rity guards and po­lice­men, a pro­vin­cial po­lice chief said.

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