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U.S. Raid on Village Revives the Specter of an Old Enemy
Published on Friday, June 28, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
U.S. Raid on Village Revives the Specter of an Old Enemy
by Alissa J. Rubin

KOURMASHY, Afghanistan -- An American military raid last weekend on this village near the eastern town of Gardez has left area residents shaken, confused and, above all, angry.

For locals, the incident seems reminiscent of the tactics used by the Russian troops who occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s: forced entrance into homes, detentions and the seizure of property.

Their assessment explains some of the difficulties that the United States faces in its military mission in Afghanistan. "It is harmful to the Americans when they do these things. People will begin to hate them the way they hated other governments that tried to dominate them," said Abdullah Mujahed, the commander responsible for security for Gardez.

Raids such as the one in Kourmashy may be yielding significant gains in the war against terrorism. That is difficult to know, given the limited information released by the U.S. military. However, it is certain that any benefits come at a high cost in terms of American credibility among Afghans whose allegiance is up for grabs in this largely untamed border region.

Gardez and the surrounding area are near the site of Operation Anaconda, the largest ground battle fought by U.S. troops in the Afghan war. Many people who supported the Taliban live here, and it is unclear to what extent they now back the Americans, especially given that there are rockets fired regularly at the special forces bases in the area.

Here's what happened when U.S. troops carried out their raid here last Friday night, at least as Kourmashy residents and local authorities describe the events:

In the scorching summer weather, the evenings are welcome in Afghanistan. Children, who have whimpered all day in the heat, lie quietly on their blankets. People stay up late talking and letting the breezes blow through the open doors and windows.

The moon was almost full and most of the families were asleep when the thunderous sound of whirring propellers swept over the dirt pathways and earthen walls of this village about 60 miles south of Kabul, the capital. Children began to scream; cows and burros pawed the ground.

Several miles away in Gardez, Ahmed Najib Wardak, 39, the acting governor of Paktia province, was jolted awake. A Northridge resident for the past 12 years, he returned in April to help his father, then the governor, rule this turbulent southeastern province where the Taliban and Al Qaeda were active long after the Taliban regime fell in the fall.

"I woke up when I heard the helicopters. I thought [Osama] Bin Laden was here," Wardak said. "I thought to myself: Why didn't I know Bin Laden was here?"

Alarmed, he called the special forces soldiers who operate out of a base just south of Gardez and have established a close relationship with his government. "I said, 'What's going on?' and they said, 'We don't know, it's not our operation, but take care of yourself.' "

Meanwhile in Kourmashy there was chaos. It is difficult to determine now exactly what happened, but it seems that at least eight helicopters came to the village, some of them hovering overhead. Planes also were flying in the area.

Some U.S. soldiers hammered on the doors while others clambered into the houses by climbing over the walls.

The village is little more than a collection of high-walled compounds made of dried mud. Open sewers run down the middle of the narrow lanes that separate the homes. Typically, two or three families live in a compound that has no electricity. Cooking is done over single-burner gas stoves or open fires. The worn iron pots are scrubbed clean with sand.

"We were so scared, the helicopter was dropping people down on our roofs, the children were crying, screaming. It was a very hard night," said Kompari, 35, who said none of her menfolk were home during the incident. Like many Afghans, she goes by one name.

Next door, at a compound where Sediqa and Aqela live, soldiers pushed open the door and rushed into the mud yard.

"There were so many of them we couldn't count them," said Sediqa, a 35-year-old mother of eight. "The children all woke up. They were all scared. We have 14 small children in this house and since the soldiers have come they cannot sleep, they cry and cry."

Sediqa's husband is a wood hauler, while her sister-in-law Aqela's husband is a butcher. Both men were handcuffed and taken away. The women said they themselves were moved into a room with the children while the house was searched, but were not mistreated.

A few houses away, the story at first sounded similar. Bismullah, 15, said his father and uncle, both wood haulers, were handcuffed and taken away. A fifth man walking on the street was detained as well.

But then the story became less simple. Bismullah said soldiers seized cases of ammunition, rockets, guns and $4,000--far more weapons and money than the average wood hauler would have in his home.

The dollars were from an uncle who worked as a driver in Saudi Arabia, Bismullah said. He gave no explanation for the weapons. In Afghanistan, having weapons--even in large numbers--can have many explanations. The home could have been used by Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, but just as likely the arms were the property of one of the warring factions in the area.

But the village does have a history that links it to the Taliban and Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. According to Wardak, the acting governor, the Americans were in search of a man named Alijan, a longtime driver for the region's former Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Haqqani, who had ties with Al Qaeda, is one of the most wanted Taliban figures. In November, Americans in pursuit of him bombed a guest house where he was staying, killing some guards and others, damaging the compound and injuring Haqqani, who managed to slip away.

Alijan, Haqqani's driver of 23 years, was from Kourmashy, and one of the houses searched belonged to a relative.

U.S. military spokesmen would not say whether the soldiers were seeking Alijan. They only acknowledge that "we had sources of information that indicated that Al Qaeda or Taliban were in that location," as Army Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said in a telephone interview. Officials also note that a cache of weapons was found on the site.

The problem with the raid, in terms of American credibility here, is that Alijan was not in the village and it isn't clear whether those who were detained had anything to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. No one locally seemed to think that they did. Instead they believe that the Americans got bad intelligence from Afghans who had a grudge.

When questioned about Alijan, locals say they have not seen him since the Taliban fled in the fall. They say they should not be targeted just because a Taliban member used to visit his hometown.

"When the Taliban were in power, they went into every village, into every mosque, into every house. Who could say no to armed men? Who could tell him not to come?" asked shopkeeper Mohammed Hassan. "But we are surprised that these men were arrested--the world has developed so much, but the American information is so poor that they would arrest three wood haulers, a butcher and a wood seller."

Wardak and Abdullah, the commander, say they have been told that the five men probably will be released by the end of the week.

Col. Roger King, a spokesman at Bagram air base near Kabul, said a number of Afghans whom the Americans detain are released after preliminary questioning. When such releases occur, the military attempts to make amends.

"When we have released people, they get an explanation and a little something for their trouble; clothing, food--humanitarian meals that meet cultural norms," he said.

Food and clothing aside, it is unlikely that the episode will be quickly forgotten in Gardez.

"There have never been any Taliban in that village," said Khalid Ahmed, 22, who repairs radios at a small shop in Gardez. "They arrested some innocent people, they've taken innocent porters and packers."

For Wardak, who came to love America during his years in California, the episode was frustrating.

"The Russians did this same kind of thing," he said. "They disturbed people in their homes; people didn't know what was happening to them. They arrested them. And if the Americans are not careful, they will look like the Russians.

"The main reason I came to work here is to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen," he added, "to make sure that the things that happened with the Russians don't happen with the United States."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times


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