Afghanistan: Anti-U.S. Sentiment on the Rise

The shopkeepers glower as an American military patrol rumbles past the village bazaar at Afghany, some 80 miles northeast of Kabul. Mohammad Qayam and Ghul Jan are still seething about the precision U.S. airstrike in early March that hit their friend Mirwais's home, less than a mile away. They and other neighbors pulled nine broken corpses from the ruins: Mirwais's grandfather, father, mother, wife and five small children. Mirwais himself and his 7-year-old son were away seeing relatives, the men say; now he has fled into the mountains. Although local officials accuse Mirwais of belonging to the Taliban, his neighbors say he was only a farmer. "We hate the Americans so much now, we don't want to see their faces," says Jan. "They're no different from the Russians."

Most Afghans cheered the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and they appreciate the ways U.S. assistance has improved their lives since then: reopening schools, building roads and bridges, bringing electricity to remote villages. Yet they increasingly resent the unending war, especially its rising toll in civilian lives—and they don't hesitate to blame America and its multinational allies. Anti-U.S. rallies in the towns of Shindand and Jalalabad each drew more than a thousand protesters last week, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai once again declared that his government can no longer tolerate the deaths of so many innocent Afghans. "We are very sorry when the [U.S.-led] international Coalition Force and NATO soldiers lose their lives or are injured," he told a press conference. "It pains us. But Afghan [civilians] are human beings, too."

More than 900 of them died in 2006 alone. Roughly three quarters of that number died in Taliban attacks, nearly half of which "appear to have been intentionally launched" against civilian targets, according to a newly released report from Human Rights Watch. Even in attacks on legitimate military targets, the report found "little evidence to suggest that insurgent forces were in any way seeking to minimize [civilian] losses." Instead, the report said, the objective seemed to be "not merely to harm specific individuals but to generate broader fear among the civilian population." Roughly 230 civilians died in U.S. and Coalition attacks last year, but the report found no evidence that any of those killings were deliberate.

That was last year. In early March, after being hit by a suicide car bomber near Jalalabad, members of a U.S. Marine convoy evidently snapped. According to a preliminary U.S. military investigation, they sped back to their base shooting wildly, killing at least 12 unarmed civilians and wounding 35 others. (The explosion had injured one Marine.) In the aftermath, hundreds of protesters closed a highway and clashed with police. The entire 120-man battalion was yanked out of the country, and the official investigation is continuing.

Afghans expect the worst from the Taliban, but they hold America to a far higher standard. "The Taliban never claimed to support human rights," says Abdul Sattar Khowasi, a member of Parliament from Kapisa province, about 70 miles northeast of Kabul. "The U.S. came here in the name of human rights." Besides, people are increasingly afraid to criticize Mullah Mohammed Omar's Taliban forces in public. "I leave it up to Allah to punish those responsible," says Mohammad Tahir, whose two daughters, 4 and 7, were killed in late March when a suicide bomber hit an Afghan Army convoy outside his home in Laghman province. Ironically, his neighbors blame the attack on a U.S. military Provincial Reconstruction Team stationed in the town. "If the [U.S.] base wasn't here, the Taliban wouldn't be attacking us," says Kamin Agha, a local truckdriver.

But the shootings outside Jalalabad raised the anger to crisis levels—and every subsequent incident made things even worse. After a 60-year-old farmer was killed during a predawn U.S. commando raid on his house about 15 miles from the eastern provincial capital on April 20, furious neighbors carried his corpse to the local police station and had to be persuaded to give it a proper Muslim burial rather than continue marching with it all the way to Jalalabad. Barely a week later two women were killed along with four armed men during another predawn raid on a suspected car-bombing cell just outside the city. The women's deaths led to several days of protests by hundreds of Afghans who chanted "Death to Bush" and burned the American president in effigy.

On the country's far-western side, meanwhile, U.S. aircraft and Special Forces were pounding positions in Herat province's previously peaceful Zerkoh Valley. When the fighting was over, the Coalition reported that 136 Taliban had been killed. No one could say how many noncombatants had died with them; a week later, Afghans were still digging dead bodies out of the rubble. U.N. investigators in Kabul, piecing together fragmentary reports from the field, suspect that U.S. Special Forces, in search of Taliban fighters, raided two desert compounds belonging to heavily armed local tribesmen. The men were angered by the U.S. intrusion and fought back against the Americans in the name of honor. Some Taliban visitors in the area may have been killed as well, but local people insist most of the dead were civilians.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Chris Belcher said he had received no such reports, adding that U.S. forces do all they can to avoid harm to noncombatants. "The Taliban intentionally put civilians at risk by operating in close proximity [to them]," said Belcher. After visiting the scene of the fighting, members of Herat's provincial council said at least 51 civilians had been killed. First U.N. reports said 49. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission [AIHRC] put the number at 60 and warned that it could go higher as more rubble was excavated.

Whatever its toll, the battle was one more psy-war victory for the Taliban. Last week hundreds of protesters poured into the streets of Shindand, 37 miles north of the valley, chanting "Death to America" and battling police. There was speculation that the raid was based on bad intelligence provided by the tribesmen's traditional rivals. U.N. officials worry that the fighting could turn into a vendetta. "In a culture that puts a high premium on personal and family honor, it becomes almost incumbent on someone to take revenge," says Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin of New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

Despite the rising tensions, few Afghans think the Americans should get out right away. The result would surely be a bloody free-for-all: the Afghan Army, plagued by desertions, is at least two years away from being able to stand on its own. All the same, U.S. forces and their allies need to redouble their efforts to avoid harm to civilians. "Every Afghan killed in this conflict is one Afghan too many," says Dutch Maj. Gen. Ton Van Loon, commander of NATO's forces in Afghanistan. Mohammad Farid Hamidi, a member of the AIHRC, quotes an Afghan proverb: "A hundred good works can be destroyed by one mistake." The Taliban are counting on it.