Afghan support for US pullout grows after killing rampage

Posted March 13, 2012, at 10:41 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — A growing number of Afghans say they have come to see a quick U.S. pullout as the best of bad options, a shift in line with Americans’ growing disapproval of the decade-long war.

The sentiment follows a rampage Sunday allegedly by a U.S. soldier and an attack Tuesday in which an Afghan government delegation visiting the same village came under fire from suspected Taliban fighters.

“When the Americans first came, it was people like me who welcomed them,” said Abdul Jabar, 28, a truck driver from Kandahar. “Now they are killing our women and children.”

During the early years of the war, Jabar said, when slow-driving U.S. military convoys on the road between Kabul and Kandahar wouldn’t let him and other vehicles pass, he was patient, seeing the inconveniences of a foreign military coalition as the price of security. That calculus shifted gradually over time but dramatically over the past few weeks, he said. The burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers last month and the deaths of 16 civilians in the shooting Sunday have left him craving vengeance.

Jabar said he wouldn’t be satisfied “if the American gets killed, even if 20 Americans get killed,” referring to the punishment he deemed appropriate to avenge the execution of nine children and seven adults in Kandahar.

Afghans interviewed Tuesday said the violence made them long for the end of the foreign military presence here.

Many educated, urban Afghans have worried that the abrupt pullout of U.S. troops could create an opening for the Taliban to return to power, plunging Afghanistan back into international isolation and abject poverty. The recent events, though, have made even some of them rethink the wisdom of a prolonged international military presence, even if it puts the country’s continued development and modernization on the line.

Farid Maqsudi, a prominent Afghan American businessman, said the burning of the Korans and Sunday’s shootings have convinced him that a swift withdrawal is the best course of action.

“The point of no return has been long overdue,” said Maqsudi, a founding member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Afghanistan, who has had close personal and commercial ties with U.S. officials in Afghanistan over the last decade. “The sooner the responsibility shifts to the Afghans, the better it would be for all stakeholders.”

In the attack Tuesday, two brothers of President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped the Taliban ambush as they were leaving a mosque in Balandi, a tiny village in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province where the rampage took place. An Afghan solider protecting the government delegation was fatally shot in the attack, provincial officials said.

A few hundred Afghans took to the streets in the eastern city of Jalalabad on Tuesday to demand that the American soldier held in the shootings Sunday be tried in an Afghan court. In Kandahar city, hundreds of students attended a memorial for the victims during which many also called for the prompt prosecution of the service member.

“He has to be punished,” said Hazrat Mir Tokahil, the dean of Kandahar University. “That was the demand of the students.”

The type of violent riots and protests that followed the burning of the Korans would be counterproductive in this case, Tokahil said, because “the enemy would take advantage of that.”

Seeking to capitalize on the anger triggered by the deaths, the Taliban on Tuesday issued its third and most detailed statement on the shootings, threatening to behead foreign “murderous sadistic troops in every corner of the country.” The statement said residents of Kandahar had not reacted more viscerally and violently to the killings because local officials co-opted by the American government have told them to stand down.

“They have banned the courageous people of Kandahar and the country from taking to the streets,” the statement said, calling that position “rubbing salt on the victims’ wounds.”

The Koran burning triggered a week-long spate of riots and prompted Afghan security forces to fatally shoot a handful of American soldiers. The reaction to the killings has been more subdued because the desecration of Korans is seen as an affront to Muslims worldwide and because the loss of civilian life at the hands of foreign troops has become somewhat routine, Afghans said in interviews.

“The burning of the Korans was more important because it targeted the foundation of our religion,” said Mawlavi Qiyamuddin Kashaf, the head of Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, an assembly of religious scholars.

The council condemned the killings in a statement issued Tuesday in which it called for an end to night raids by foreign troops on the homes of suspected insurgents.

“Those who consider themselves as the upholders of human rights in the 21st century once again committed a barbaric, inhumane, shameful deed,” the council, which is seen as closely allied with Karzai’s government, said in the statement. “If this is repeated again, it will be difficult to control people’s sentiments and prevent a general uproar” against foreign troops.

Members of Afghanistan’s Senate echoed that sentiment. Instead of holding sessions inside parliament, lawmakers stood outside on the snow-covered pavement in silent protest of the killings.

“We don’t know anymore who is our friend,” Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, the Senate chairman, said later in an interview. “They are sending mad soldiers to our country and killing our people. Now we don’t see any difference between the Russian forces who killed our innocent people, the terrorists killing our women and children and the Americans.”

Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

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