Protests have broken out in Kabul and other cities in Afghanistan against the US-led foreign forces, following a spate of civilian casualties in military operations and a lawmaker wept during the session of the Meshrano Jirga, the upper house of parliament, as he described the agony of the families that lost 65 members in recent airstrikes by Nato aircraft in the eastern Kunar province.
Afghanistan has been a tragic place since April 1978, when the communist Saur Revolution triggered violence that continues unabated. The two superpowers of the time, the USSR and the USA, took turns to inflict death and destruction on the unfortunate Afghans by sending in thousands of troops to occupy Afghanistan and chase an elusive victory against their respective determined foes.
Every time the Nato forces, armed with the most lethal weapons and airpower, bomb targets in the hope of eliminating Taliban fighters, they end up causing civilian casualties. It is no longer “collateral damage” because that should happen once in a while. At times, so many civilian deaths, including those of children, are caused that it would be appropriate to refer to it as carnage.
On these occasions, one wishes that there were some powerful world authority which could stop a big power from committing such war crimes. Or that that power could be shamed into halting military actions on moral grounds, because those being harmed are defenceless and also among the poorest in the world. Without warning, they are condemned to death from the air and the next moment they are blown into pieces.
It is followed by the usual denials by the US and Nato authorities, which insist that those eliminated were militants, even if eyewitness accounts show that civilians were killed and injured. Invariably, it is subsequently established that civilians rather than militants were killed, though differences persist as to how many of those who lost their lives were innocent. Grudgingly and after a long delay, the US and Nato admit their mistake, offer condolences to the bereaved families and promise compensation and better judgement in their military actions in future. President Karzai issues his customary condemnation, launches vocal protests and warns about the falling support for foreign forces among the Afghan people. Before long, another such incident happens and this cycle of events is repeated.
The Taliban too cannot escape blame for causing civilian deaths in Afghanistan. As UN annual reports indicate, an increasing number of innocent civilians are killed and injured in Taliban attacks. Most such casualties are caused in suicide bombings and by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by the Taliban to attack military convoys. The majority of civilians getting killed are in Pakhtun-populated south-western Afghanistan, where the insurgency is at its fiercest due to the presence of both foreign and Afghan soldiers and the Taliban militants in large numbers.
In the latest attack by the militants, 12 civilians. including five children and two women, were killed in the south-eastern Paktika province on Sunday when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Such incidents have become common in southern Afghanistan where most unpaved roads have increasingly become unsafe due to the use of IEDs.
Though the hundreds of protestors who gathered in Kabul on Sunday were expressing their outrage against the foreign forces for causing civilian deaths, and in particular shouting slogans of “Death to America,” there were some among them who also condemned the Taliban for harming civilians. It is rare for Afghan women to join such public protests, but dozens were brave enough to do so, chanting slogans demanding peace, criticising both the Americans and the Taliban.
However, even those critical of the Taliban concede that attacks by the militants would not take place if there were no foreign forces in Afghanistan. The real issue, then, is the presence of the US-led Nato forces totalling around 150,000; backed by thousands of private contractors, or mercenaries if you like, hired from scores of countries and known to use strong-arm methods and violate local laws with impunity. Those foreigners aren’t going away for the next four years if one were to believe the Western leaders, who decided at their Lisbon Summit late last year to retain their forces for four more years in Afghanistan and keep the options open beyond 2014 in line with the ground situation at that time. This means four more years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and its dangerous fallout on Pakistan.
The US has already broached the subject of its military plans for Afghanistan beyond 2014 with President Hamid Karzai, who has been telling his people that the Americans want to retain military bases in the country. Obviously, the beleaguered Afghan president doesn’t want to take such a crucial decision himself and is, therefore, seeking advice from members of parliament, his political allies and religious scholars, as well as ordinary Afghans. Mostly, the response he is getting is negative and it appears that opposition to permanent US bases would grow with the passage of time.
Former Mujahideen commander and Herat provincial governor, Ismail Khan, who is now Afghanistan’s minister for water and power, was the first to publicly oppose permanent US bases. He was followed by the elected provincial council in the eastern Laghman province. Others are following suit.
Anti-government clerics led by Maulana Abdullah Zakiri had issued a statement opposing establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan and stressed that the on-ongoing fight against the foreign forces was real jihad. Now pro-government clerics have taken the same stand.
The Ulema Council of Afghanistan, the pro-government body of clerics, in a meeting rejected the establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan and termed it a useless attempt. A delegation of the council led by its deputy chief, Maulvi Qiyamuddin Kashaf, then met President Karzai to convey the decision. An official statement issued by the president’s office after the meeting said it was the right of the Muslim nation of Afghanistan to take decision with regard to this important issue.
President Karzai may take the issue to the Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly of elders convened at times of crisis and national emergency, because the newly-elected parliament may not be the right forum to make a decision. A referendum too isn’t an option in Afghanistan, where every recent election has been marred by allegations of electoral fraud. It is likely that the Loya Jirga may oppose giving the US the right to retain military bases in Afghanistan.
The issue of civilian deaths in Nato military operations hit the headlines as a large number of civilians were killed in Afghanistan in recent weeks. President Karzai said 150 Afghan civilians were killed in Nato military operations and other acts of violence. They included 65 in Kunar province, in one bombing raid in Ghaziabad district. A delegation sent by Karzai came up with this figure of 65 civilians: 21 boys, 19 girls, 10 women and 15 male adults. In another Nato raid a few days later, nine boys collecting firewood in Kunar province’s Manogai area were killed, followed by five men on a hunting trip in the mountains in neighbouring Laghman province.
The Afghan lawmaker from Kunar, Maulana Shahzada Shahid, said after the recent Nato bombings in his native province that he would take his complaint against Nato to the International Court of Justice. The issue became so emotional that Afghan lawmaker Rafiullah Haideri wept during the recent session of the upper house. He was unable to control his emotions as he narrated the story of his visit as part of the official delegation to Kunar to investigate the civilian deaths.
The issue of civilian casualties has certainly aroused resentment in Afghanistan and triggered protests. The Nato forces may have scored some small military victories against the Taliban and killed some of the militants, but they have lost the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. It is a losing battle, and the sooner they accept this fact the better.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: email@example.com