What Has Afghans So Angry

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An Afghan carrying glass passes by the burnt facade of a Chinese restaurant after it was destroyed during a demonstration in Kabul.

Five years after collapse of the Taliban, the streets of Kabul are typically clogged with land cruisers transporting foreigners or newly minted drug lords. Ordinary Afghans, however, still live much as they did before — with sewage flowing through open gutters at the side of the street, no running water and working electricity only about every two or three days.

That growing gap between Afghanistan's haves and have-nots helps explain why a U.S. military convoy accident triggered riots that engulfed Kabul on Monday, leaving at least 14 people dead, over 100 injured and millions of dollars of damage. It was the worst violence to sweep the Afghan capital since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, and in the process, it shattered the illusion that the city would remain untouched by the growing unrest in the south and east — as well as the notion that the Taliban or its sympathizers were the only violent threat to the Western presence.

The riots came hot on the heels of a U.S. air strike last week in southern Afghanistan, which left around 30 Afghan civilians dead as planes battered Taliban fighters. Even before the convoy accident, Western diplomats say many frustrated young men were already looking for a provocation. "Underlying it all is the fact that young men have not seen any tangible change in their lives in terms of either jobs or basic services," said aid worker Holly Ritchie, who works for a British charity in Kabul. Much of their anger is directed squarely at the very people ostensibly in the country to help, the foreign aid agencies who oversee a portion of the billions of dollars in aid money that has flowed into the country in the last four years.

"We never expected anything of this scale. It was totally unprecedented in Kabul. We were here during the mujahedin and Taliban years and have never seen anything like it," said Paul Barker, the director of CARE Afghanistan. The offices of the relief agency were looted and burned to the ground, along with those of French aid agency ACTED and a number of Afghan restaurants and businesses. On Tuesday, four Afghan aid workers with the charity Action Aid were killed in the first targeted attack on an NGO in northern Jawzjan province, which like Kabul, had previously been viewed as stable. "People were angry with the NGOs because they are using lots of money for themselves. The only people who get any benefit from them being here are the people are working for them," said Isatullah, a mechanic.

For their part, aid workers here blame the U.S. and other Western military for enflaming anti-Western sentiment, which invariably ends up being vented at the softest targets: the charities. U.S. and NATO convoys regularly plough through the city at high speed, often pushing Afghans off the road with little regard to their safety. "The U.S. use force in the street with their cars. When Americans are in a hurry, they don't care how they drive," said an Afghan U.N. worker who asked to remain anonymous.

With average Afghans angry about their daily lot, the Taliban are no longer the only anti-government forces that the U.S. has to worry about. It was young men allied to the Talibanís arch-foes — the heroes of the Northern Alliance who ousted the ultra-Islamic regime — that were major agitators in the Kabul violence. Many of the demonstrators were carrying portraits of ethnic Tajik Afghan resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by the Taliban a day before the September 11 attacks on the U.S.

President Hamid Karzai's government is led by Pashtuns from the south and east of the country, and Tajiks from Massoud's Panjshir valley stronghold feel marginalized. Foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, the last member of the powerful Panjshiri elite to hold a cabinet post, was dropped by Karzai in a reshuffle earlier this year. "The Panjshiris who led the Northern Alliance are angry because they have been ostracized and shut out from positions of power by this government," said Michael Shaikh, an analyst with Human Rights Watch.

By Tuesday, police had restored calm to the streets of the Kabul. But as Afghans came out to survey the damage, many were asking where the foreign troops were when they needed them. NATO peacekeepers offered support to the Afghan army and police during the riots, but local authorities thought their presence might spark more violence. "There were no American soldiers on the street. They stood back and let the rioters loot. People say the Russians were better because they did more for the people," said Fahor, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in downtown Kabul. If the Americans can't even live up to the low standard set by their cold war enemies during their eight-year occupation of the country, their prospects for success in Afghanistan are dimmer than anyone may have realized.