TIME: 'We Were Better Off
Under the Russians'
Monday, June 10, 2002
By MICHAEL WARE / KANDAHAR
The Afghan commander laughed at the way the Americans
were going about their work. U.S. troops, he said,
were obsessed with finding caches of Taliban
documents to help track down their fugitive enemies.
The commander's friend explained the mirth by pulling
out his own identification card: a small
passport-like book made by the Taliban and authorized
with a Taliban stamp. It was issued April 16, long
after the fall of that regime. It's a legitimate
document, and the man isn't an enemy -- the local
government doesn't have money for stationery, so
decrees and papers are still being printed on
leftover Taliban stock.
That's one, tiny example of how every encounter, from
simple visa checks to complicated special ops, is
fraught with the potential for misunderstanding,
confusions and, in military parlance, snafus. Take
the raid on the village of Band Taimore, 80
kilometers west of Kandahar. On the night of May 24,
helicopters raining machine-gun fire descended onto
the village wheat fields. The mission was a success.
U.S. forces killed Haji Bajet, 70, a supporter of
Taliban leader Mullah Omar since 1994, who also had
links with Akhter Mohammed Usmani, the probable heir
to the still-fugitive Omar.
But it wasn't a whistle-clean success -- if such a
thing is imaginable in Afghanistan -- and in the
raid's aftermath, anti-U.S. sentiment is rising
around strategically important Kandahar.
During the raid, 55 men were taken prisoner. A week
later, all but five were released and allowed to
return home. When the men were being rounded up,
according to villagers, American soldiers bound and
shoved the village women. That was an affront. Naibo,
a middle-aged mother with cropped black hair, hands
and feet scored from years of labor, says troops used
plastic handcuffs to tie her hands and a torn turban
to gag her. "I felt certain they were going to kill
me," she says. "I was whispering the prayer before
dying from the Koran." Other women made similar
claims. A villager produces 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," says Shir Mohammed Stad. "We will have no
choice but to fight back."
But it is the death of a child the Americans never
even saw that has really galvanized the village. When
little Zarghunah woke shortly after midnight on May
24, the roars of choppers and their machine guns
frightened her. The six-year-old ran from the outdoor
platform where her family was sleeping on the warm
summer night. Zarghunah, still half-asleep, stumbled
across the uneven ground of the family compound,
forgetting about the open well. Her father found her
later, nearly 12 meters down the shaft, her body
broken, wet and lifeless. Zarghunah loved red dresses
and a grown farm dog she called Puppy. "She was the
laughter of our house," says her mother.
About 600 people have lodged complaints about the
incident. "They are responsible for this loss of life
and must answer for it," says a Kandahar police
official of the American forces. A gathering of
Muslim clerics across the border in Quetta, Pakistan,
last week condemned the U.S. and called for
retribution. The raid -- a necessary one by U.S.
calculations -- has been added by Afghans to the
other, larger accidents during the American campaign:
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 pro-U.S. figures are worried about
public reaction to the accidents. "If America
continues to make mistakes, the people will resist,"
says Khan Mohammed, Kandahar military chief and one
of the most powerful warlords in the region. "Only
two or three more and their patience will break."
Afghans are famously hospitable. But history shows
they don't take kindly to invaders or foreign forces
that stay too long. The Americans may be wearing out
their welcome. As one villager in Band Taimore
mutters: "We were better off under the