September 27, 2009 7:33 pm

Afghans divided over foreign forces

A bullet-shaped niche hewn from the mountainside is all that remains of the colossal stone Buddha that watched over the Bamiyan valley for 1,500 years before the Taliban demolished it with dynamite.

Fragments of the fallen giant and its smaller twin joined the debris left by armies past: from the carcasses of Soviet tanks to the hilltop ruins of the City of Screams, site of a 13th century massacre by Genghis Khan.

The Hazara community that lives along the valley has fared far better since US troops arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, seven months after the Taliban destroyed their statues, than they have under past invaders.

Even as the insurgency blazes in the south and smoulders in the north, their central Bamiyan province remains a rare Afghan haven, patrolled by New Zealanders who pride themselves on friendly relations with locals.

Traders in the bazaar in Bamiyan town, once a thriving stop on the Silk Route from Europe to Asia, have a simple solution to the dilemma faced by Barack Obama, the US president, over whether to deploy more troops.

“I would advise him to send more soldiers to kick out the Taliban,” said Azizullah, a shopkeeper who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. “We want freedom and we want progress.”

If such views represented a consensus, then it would be easier for Mr Obama to heed the recommendations of Stanley McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, who says more troops and a new strategy are needed to stop the west losing the war.

But in the southern and eastern provinces, where the insurgency is fiercest, people are far more likely to see foreign soldiers as oppressors. “For 1,000 years we have never had such a Ramadan, where blood was flowing everywhere because of explosions,” said Haji Dawood Khan, a shopkeeper from Helmand province, referring to the Muslim holy month that ended earlier this month. “I don’t want any foreigners building roads or big buildings for me when I am cleaning blood from my home.”

Recognising the resentment that foreign forces have caused, Gen McChrystal argues that protecting civilians must be the focus for a new approach based on persuading Afghans to side with the western-backed government instead of the Taliban.

Evidence of systematic rigging in last month’s presidential elections has, however, deepened doubts over whether President Hamid Karzai is capable of transforming an administration often seen as absent, predatory or corrupt into an entity worthy of loyalty.

The bitter legacy left by Nato forces who have found themselves enmeshed in local feuds has widened mistrust. “The more foreign troops there are, the more people will hate them,” said Mohammad Karigar, a businessman from Kandahar province, another flashpoint of the insurgency.

Haji Kamrdin, a tribal leader from Khost province in the east, was equally dismissive of the big development programmes needed to underpin classic counterinsurgency doctrine. “It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state,” he said. “Such a thing can come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners.”

There are dissenting voices, even in the south, who see sense in Gen McChrystal’s strategy. Haji Ghafoor, a tribal elder from Wardak province, said: “You need the flexibility that more troops give you to maintain momentum.”

However, the only unambiguous point of agreement between Afghans and the general is on the need to accelerate training of the army and police to allow foreign forces to leave. “They must take the money that they would spend on sending more troops and use the money for the Afghan police and army,” said Shah Mahmood, a clerk from Kandahar.

In a country that has experienced centuries of invasion, the narrative surrounding foreign forces tends to blur into a story of oppression, regardless of whether the outsiders are Russians, Pakistani intelligence agents supporting the Taliban in the 1990s, or Nato troops.

Of 17 Afghans interviewed in recent days, three said they believed Washington was bankrolling the insurgency to justify a long-term presence in Afghanistan. “If the US wants to remove the Taliban, they could do it easily,” said Mohammed Akram, an elder who lives at the foot of the mountains where the Buddhas once stood. “The US is supporting both sides.”

Additional reporting by Ahmad Wali Sarhadi

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