Making Friends in Afghanistan

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RICK LOOMIS/POOL/AP

Lt. Gary Koon shakes hands with an Afghan man

The Afghan commander laughed. The way the Americans were going about doing their work, he thought, was hilarious. U.S. troops, he said, were finding caches of documents with Taliban markings and stamps and using those papers to identify and pinpoint enemy operatives. A man seated near the commander explained the fighterís mirth by pulling out his own identification card: a small passport-like book made by the Taliban and authorized with a Taliban stamp. It had been issued April 16, long after the Taliban fell. But the card is legitimate, and the man isnít an enemy. The local government just doesnít have money for stationery and so decrees and documents are still being printed on existing Taliban stock. If you must have an I.D., youíll have to be Taliban for now. But watch out for those Americans.

You canít go by appearances in Afghanistan. Even military successes must be suspect. Take the raid on the village of Band Taimore, about 50 miles west of Kandahar, where the U.S.-led alliance runs an airbase. On the night of May 24, helicopters roared into the village, unleashing machinegun fire as they landed in the wheat fields. The mission was a success. U.S. forces killed Haji Bajet, a pioneer supporter of Mullah Omar since way back in 1994. Haji Bajet, 70, the village elder, was also linked to Akhter Mohammed Usmani, the man who may be the designated heir to the still-fugitive Omar. But the aftermath of the raid is a whispering campaign against the U.S. presence that is engulfing the strategically important region around Kandahar, just across from the sensitive Pakistani border.

On the night of May 24, 55 men were taken prisoner in the raid. A week later, all but five were released and allowed to return home. But it is the affront to the women that has fueled the anger against the Americans. And the women themselves are not being quiet about it. Naibo, a middle aged mother with short cropped black hair under the shawl covering her face and scored hands and feet from years of labor, says soldiers used plastic handcuffs and a torn turban to tie her hands and gag her. "I felt certain they were going to kill me," she says, "I was whispering a prayer from the Koran." Other women have similar claims. A villager produced his daughter Maba, 7, to act out how she says she was bound. "If they touch our women again we must ask ourselves why are we alive; we will have no choice but to fight," says villager Shir Mohammed Stad. The U.S. military denies handcuffing or mistreating the women or children.

But it is the death of a child — whom the Americans never even touched — that still stuns the locals. When little Zarghunah woke next to her brothers and sisters shortly after midnight on May 24, the roars of choppers and rat-tat-tat of machine guns frightened her. The six-year-old ran wildly into the night. As her confused family scattered from the outdoor platform where they slept on summer nights Zarghunah, half asleep, stumbled as fast as she could across the uneven ground of their mud-brick compound. She did not see the open well. Her father found her some time later, nearly 40 feet down a shaft as wide as the worn tire at its mouth; her body broken and wet and lifeless. Her family remembers that Zarghunah loved red dresses and a farm dog taller than she that she insisted on calling "Puppy." Says her mother, "She was the laughter of our house."

"They are responsible for this loss of life and must answer for it," a Kandahar police official says of the Americans. About 600 people have complained to Kandahar government officials about the incident. A gathering of Muslim clerics across the border in Quetta, Pakistan, last week condemned the American forces and called for retribution. One villager in Band Taimore mutters an insult, "We were better off under the Russians." The raid — a necessary one by U.S. calculations — is ranked by the Afghans among other so-called American atrocities: the bombing of a wedding party in December in Paktia, the slaughter of 21 friendly Afghan troops in Uruzgan in January, and the killing of three Afghan soldiers near Gardez the day after the Band Taimore prisoners were freed. Even allies are urging restraint. "If America continues to make mistakes, the people will resist. Only two or three more and their patience will break," says Khan Mohammed, Kandahar military chief and one of the most powerful warlords in the region.

At Kandahar airbase American and Canadian forces say they have been forging better ties with the locals. Two weeks ago, says Major A.C. Roper, spokesman for the 101st U.S. Airborne Division, a local farmer warned a U.S. military patrol of a newly planted mine on the road they were about to use. "Itís an example of the effectiveness of these relationships," Roper says. But, he adds, "we also realize not every villager would have taken that action."