U.S. fails to win Afghans' trust

Aid burned, many set to fight, refugees say

War On Terrorism : The World

October 12, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CHAMAN, Pakistan - America's efforts to convince Afghans that its bombing campaign is targeting terrorists but not the Afghan people or Islam are hopelessly lost on 32-year-old Gul Mohammad.

His wife and family dropped off in Pakistan for safety, his motorcycle's front wheel pointed to the Afghan border, Mohammad revved the engine yesterday, ready to return to the Taliban regime stronghold of Kandahar to fight in a war he believes is directed against his homeland and his faith.

"We don't believe what America says. From the very beginning, America seems to be the enemy of Islam," Mohammad said at this crossing in western Pakistan, about a two-hour drive from Kandahar. "All the Afghans are very angry."

If the United States has been successfully destroying al-Qaida terrorist training camps and crippling airfields, it appears to have been failing in its public relations efforts to win the trust of the Afghan people. After five days of bombings, Afghans crossing into Pakistan here from Kandahar and other cities seem to be gearing up for a war that has never been declared against them.

They are burning the humanitarian food aid dropped by U.S. forces. Men are encouraging wives and daughters to train for battle. And many Afghans appear to relish the thought of entering a ground war with American personnel, whom they hope to defeat as they did Soviet and British armies.

"Please, America is invited to come inside with its land force. If they are prepared to cut our heads, we are ready for it," said Jamal u Din, 32, who ran his finger across his throat to emphasize the point. "For the land forces, we have made our females prepared for fight. They are sitting with Kalashnikovs. Our big missile is the name of God. When we take the name of God, nothing can stop us."

Afghans' comments at the border were similar to those of the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. During a news conference yesterday, the ambassador was asked about the possible deployment of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan. He replied, "When the Americans enter Afghanistan, here will start the real war - not now."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this week that Voice of America is expanding its broadcasts aimed at Afghanistan, hoping to convince the population that the U.S.-led military campaign is meant for terrorists only. The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan is making more material available to the media in Pakistan, where fundamentalist Islamic groups are threatening to hold anti-U.S. protests again today.

But it is proving difficult to convince the Afghan population of America's intentions. The United States' humanitarian gesture of dropping more than 100,000 daily rations inside Afghanistan's needy areas may be backfiring, according to some reports by Afghans.

"Whatever aid America has given us through air we just set it on fire," said Mujahid Habid Ullah, 24, who had just arrived in Chaman from Kandahar. "The Taliban collected them all and set them on fire. We don't need aid. Leave us - we want to grow our own wheat. We want to have our own food."

Other Afghans from Kandahar interviewed yesterday confirmed these reports.

Yesterday marked the fifth day of U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan. Heavy explosions rocked the Kabul airport during the first daylight attacks on the capital. In Kandahar, bombing raids hit a compound where Osama bin Laden's followers had lived and a munitions dump. The Taliban militia said that nationwide at least 115 people have been killed in the strikes, including 100 who died near Jalalabad and 15 who were killed when a missile struck a mosque in that northeastern city. Many people from Kandahar said the bombs were hitting civilian, not military targets. "All of the people are leaving their houses. And one civilian house was hit, killing eight people," said 24-year-old Jaffev of Kandahar.

"I swear to God. None of the Taliban have been hit and none of Taliban have been hurt. Whenever Americans bomb, they hit the civilian places, and all of the civilians are crying and starving. I saw it myself," said another man.

Most Afghans said as much as half of the population of Kandahar has fled. Still, most shops remain open during the day, they said. Many Afghans complained about the suffering of their friends, neighbors and relatives, who are trying to survive outside the city. "They just left Kandahar and started walking to rural areas, but they do not have enough food to eat and no water to drink," said 20-year-old Sham Sullah of Kandahar.

Each night in Kandahar, residents have kept their nerve when the bombs start falling, insisted Sullah. "Believe me, when they come at nighttime to strike, all the Afghanis say, `Welcome! Welcome! They are giving us bombs again. We are happy.' It's very sad that we don't have anything to hit the planes, but we are ready for the land war," he said.

British officials have said some Taliban supporters have deserted since the bombings began Sunday. But no one who had come from Kandahar would acknowledge weakness in the regime. Some reported that the Taliban are gaining support - including the support of Mohammad, who planned to join their fighting ranks this week. "The Taliban needs my help," he said before leaving, "and that's why I am going back."

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