Michael Ware


TIME: 'We Were Better Off Under the Russians'


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 Russians."