Into the lion’s den
From Herat, our car traveled for two hours on the state-of-the art highway that loops across the country to Kandahar in the southeast. We then turned off on a minor dirt road toward the Shindand district of Herat province.
As far as the eye could see there were dusty plains and dry mountains. The going was rough, but the driver did not want to slow down in this notoriously lawless district, in stark contrast to Herat city and its surrounds.
After more than an hour we stopped at the half-burned building that serves as the Kabul-anointed district administration’s headquarters. The building was set on fire by an angry mob after a NATO bombardment in the last week of April of Bakht village in Shindand district in which 136 people died.
NATO claimed that the victims were Taliban, but all subsequent reports show that most of them were ordinary citizens, and the raid has resulted in a surge of support for the insurgency. Afghan officials have even confirmed that 57 of the dead were civilians.
This was the second major development in April in the area in favor of the insurgency. The first was Iran’s deportation of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees to the area - their resentment is driving them into the arms of the insurgency (see Iran forces the issue in Afghanistan, Asia Times Online, June 8).
Haji Mohammed Alam is the administrator of the district. Sitting in a room in which a picture of President Hamid Karzai hangs, Alam, a Barakzai Pashtun educated in Russia, expressed his concern over the April bombing.
"There are no Taliban or al-Qaeda in Shindand. People settle their old tribal feuds by feeding wrong information to NATO. NATO then carries out a bombing on the civilian population without proper investigations," Alam said.
Alam then telephoned Haji Nasru, the strongman of the Shindand district and a younger brother of slain Pashtun warlord Amanullah Nasru.
Soon we were sitting in the administrator’s car heading toward the district of Zair-e-Koh, which is ruled by Nasru. The Karzai-appointed administrator was only allowed to take one police guard - no Afghan police or army are allowed into Nasru’s domain. A checkpoint on top of a mountain pass manned by armed men in civilian dress marked the beginning of this domain. Armed guards in a jeep then escorted us.
"The people in Zair-e-Koh don’t trust the Afghan legal system. In the past few months, religious scholars have established themselves in the villages. Each village has at least four clerics, and they settle disputes in a simplistic manner," Alam observed as we rode along.
To underline some of the tensions in the area, the administrator said that while Herat province is the only one in Afghanistan to have uninterrupted power supply, electricity is not available in Shindand.
The reason is that legendary Afghan warrior against the Soviet resistance, Ismail Khan, a Tajik, was ousted as governor of Herat and as a token gesture made minister of energy. He now makes sure that his Pashtun adversary in Shindand is kept in the dark.
After driving on a difficult track for an hour, we reached Nasru’s compound. He’s a thin, tall man and warmly hugged and kissed his visitor. "I am Haji Nasru," he said, adding with a smile, "Nasru the oppressed."
As it happened, a traditional tribal council was in session. It was full of elders and with relatives of those killed in the NATO bombardment.
"Every time our opponents, especially Ismail Khan, spread stories that Shindand is full of Pakistanis and Chechens - but with no evidence - NATO carries out a bombardment, and those who are killed are Afghans.
"The governor of neighboring Farah province does not have control in his area and he always blames Shindand as a hotbed of Taliban and al-Qaeda activities. But we always question this, ’If there are al-Qaeda or Pakistani fighters in Shindand, why do NATO troops not show their bodies?’" Nasru said.
"The last time they bombed villages in our district we asked for the reason. They named Mullah Akhtar Mohammed as Taliban and active in the area. But Mullah Akhtar is an ordinary person and has nothing to do with the Taliban. Of course, there were many Taliban living in our area, but now they have left the Taliban movement. But calling them Taliban and bombing them will serve no purpose; instead, it will complicate the situation," Nasru said.
Nasru’s village of Kosh, about 7 kilometers from the main bombing site of Bakht village, was also hit, including his house and a school built by an Italian reconstruction team.
"Now the government admits that 57 among the dead were civilians, but it refuses to compensate their families. Only the International Committee of the Red Cross provided some aid," Nasru said.
At this point an elderly man jumped up, brandishing two identity cards issued by the Election Commission of Afghanistan. "They were my relatives. They were killed in this incident and said to be Taliban. But if they were Taliban, they could not have been registered on the election list, because the Taliban are strictly forbidden from registering for voting."
Nasru continued. "You know, we are loyal to President Hamid Karzai’s government, but our opponents settle their scores against us through NATO. Sometimes they blame us for growing poppy, but you can see there is none. And sometimes they blame us for harboring Pakistani and Chechen fighters, but they never succeed in proving their presence here, dead or alive."
A visibly angry tribal elder picked up on the implicit threat in Nasru’s comments: "I tell you one thing, that resentment against NATO is growing among us. They suddenly conduct raids in our areas and do not care about the sanctity of our homes. The next time this happens, I will declare war against them."
Haji Bismal, a middle-aged villager, continued the theme. "NATO has a bizarre explanation for everything. Once they arrested some people from our area and took them to Bagram base [near Kabul]. They were asked to recite some verses from the Koran. When they did, they were declared as Taliban.
"I tell you, the Soviet army was far better than the Americans. At least they used to warn us before an attack to withdraw our families and children. NATO does not care about anything, and it bombs an area without caring about women and children. You will have seen our devastated homes; what relation do we have with any fighting or with the Taliban?"
Administrator Alam has petitioned Kabul to have Shindand, which is predominantly Pashtun in an otherwise Tajik-Sunni province, declared a separate province. Karzai agreed in principle, but the matter is winding its way through the bureaucracy.
During the Taliban regime (1996-2001) many people from Shindand joined the Taliban, but eventually moved on to exile in Iran. Now they are being returned against their will. And incidents like the bombing of Bakht serve as a catalyst to increase the anti-foreign movement in northwestern Afghanistan, even if it has nothing to do with the Taliban movement.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief.