How Afghans will view Kandahar killing spree

Scene of Panjwai shootings

The charge that an American soldier murdered 16 civilians near Kandahar, most of them children, is one of those moments where the Western view of events in that country tends to differ vitally from that of Afghans.

Having visited Afghanistan many times over the space of 25 years, I would wager that the average person there is more angry about the Americans burning Korans at Bagram airbase.

It is not that the killing near Kandahar is not an awful tragedy for the families concerned, nor that people locally will be indifferent to their loss. Rather the Afghan attitude to suffering in war is born of decades of struggle, often merciless, and that people there will not tolerate insults to their religion.

Anti-US stronghold

Panjwai, the district where the US sergeant is accused of running amok, was deeply prejudiced against foreign forces well before this happened.

Man brandishing half burned Koran The burning of Korans at Bagram sparked a wave of violent protest

It is one of the places where Taliban leader Mullah Omar used to preach regularly, and has been the focus of several major Nato/Afghan operations.

Prior to Sunday's killing spree, you would have found much hatred of the Americans in Panjwai, where Western forces have come under attack countless times.

You would also have found a great many men who were willing to plant bombs or attack foreigners, and it is open to question despite Taliban calls today for revenge, whether the local insurgency can try any harder than it already is.

To Westerners, the idea that the perpetrator of these crimes seems to be a mentally unstable soldier marks an important distinction from civilians killed, say, during crossfire in military operations.

I doubt these distinctions will mean much to Afghans. Nato commanders say their research suggests that many in the restive southern provinces even blame "the occupiers" or "infidels" when Taliban bombs kill civilians, arguing they would not be placing them if the foreign troops were not there.

Tribal divisions

Travel further afield from the district in Kandahar where this happened and you will find that some have great sympathy, and others do not.

The schisms of ethnic group or tribe can often define attitudes in Afghanistan. Northerners - Tajiks, or Uzbeks for example - often regard the Pashtuns in the south as trouble makers who get what they deserve.

During the operations to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, I sometimes found the lack of fellow feeling or sympathy among Afghans quite breath-taking, for example when civilians in some far off place were killed accidentally by American bombing.

One Kabul man told me that some people killed in faraway Herat were "worth it to get rid of the Taliban".

When covering the Soviet war in the 1980s there, I saw many examples of mujahideen in one village standing idly by while others just a few miles away were being slaughtered. If they were from a different tribe, or party, or there was some feud between commanders, they just did not seem to care.

Violence trigger

In that fractured, querulous, society religion and certain aspects of traditional culture (such as female purdah in the Pashtun areas) remain the great touchstones for generating fellow feeling or indeed outrage.

The number that have died as a result a momentary, but stupid failure of cultural awareness by Americans who sent Korans for incineration with other waste has already cost two or three times the number of lives as Sunday's crime. The Danish cartoon row produced bloodshed in Afghanistan and Pakistan too.

One morning back in August 2010, I attended the morning Battlefield Update of a Nato commander in southern Afghanistan. Much of the briefing was given over to an incident the previous day in the capital of Uruzgan province, Tarinkot.

We watched the black and white thermal imagery from a drone orbiting over a bazaar, as white figures, hot angry men, ran about smashing the place up.

Several people had died in the riot playing out on big screens. Why had it happened? Because a rumour had swept the bazaar that Nato troops had stuck a bayonet into a copy of the Koran. As far as anyone in headquarters could establish, it was completely untrue.

There in the high tech operations room, age old passions had been discussed by rational men and women engaged in the uphill struggle to bring security to southern Afghanistan.

At times, these soldiers and the Afghan people that surround them seem worlds apart - rarely more so than in the ways they interpret violence, real or symbolic.

Mark Urban, Diplomatic and defence editor, Newsnight Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Very interesting article and demonstrates the vastly different cultures that are in play here. It is arrogant to believe that it is simply a mission of transplanting Democracy to a land that would embrace it if they only knew more about it. This is a highly complex situation with too many variables to be able to make sound decisions..

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Today I have heard commentators try to dismiss this event by saying that the Afghan troops have done similar things lately. Each of these horrors is unique in itself and must be viewed in context. There is no "fog of war" excuse to apply here, just deliberate murders. Regardless of who is firing the bullets somebody thinks they making a statement.

    Tough! We don't want to know!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Strange, I would have thought that someone who has visited Afghanistan 'many times' over 25 years would be only too aware of why someone would consider collateral damage to be a price worth paying to get rid of the Taliban.

    If we let the Taliban win in Afghanistan. The Afghan's will lose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Interesting article. Afghanistan is such a complex country. While the event may not be as significant locally as perhaps the burning the of the Koran was, it will undoubtedly undermine international attitudes towards the US Military presence. Whether the soldier is tried in Afghanistan or by the US will be an interesting diplomatic development. Personally, I think he should be handed over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Great article and right on the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    NATO and the ANA aren’t fighting “freedom fighters” who are trying to protect their country from Western imperialism. They are fighting fundy jihadis who will ensure that their insane interpretation of Islamic scripture is enforced on all citizens of their country. War is hell and civilian casualties are terrible, but the ideological plague of the Taliban is objectively worse for everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The only issue I would take with it, upon reflection, is the moral relativist angle. Yes the US looks at the incident differently than the Afghans. But the US looks at lots of things differently than the Afghans. Once you introduce the local norms of morality (or lack thereof) you run the risk of behaving up to them. If ALL Afghans thought that premarital sex = death by stoning, does it (cont)

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    We have never been told the truth about the killings by military personnel and WHY ARE WE THERE?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    i am an afghan and i swear they have lost me forever,this was too far! this! and this sick writer says those villages were supporting taliban, then why didn't anybody have a gun to kill him? this is how up westerners try to justify the crimes they do. well it wasn't significant they don't care if we kill few of them anyway they are like animals.
    to with you and your article Mr expert...

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    (cont) then follow that if some lone US serviceman were to murder a fellow female soldier on those grounds, he would meet with unanimous Afghan approval and unanimous US disapproval? Which standard are we to use? The US morality offends the Afghans, Afghan morality offends Western norms. The slippery slope of comparative offense, 1 Koran burning is a greater sin than murdering X children?...

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It takes diplomatic sophistication, cultural insight, social sychology skills to rule as a world power. British were much better at these in their time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #9 "...this sick writer says those villages were supporting taliban, then why didn't anybody have a gun to kill him?"

    Because being in the Taliban or supporting the Taliban does not automatically mean that one must murder journalists, on sight? Just a thought.

    Give it a try sometimes. Ranting and raving requires no such effort,

    You are proving the author's story about the riots...:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's strange how little they care for each other. In 2009 I was based in a compound in the outskirts of Sangin and we tried to generate a sense of community in the locals with ideas like money for starting a business,or help with setting up a farmers cooperative but they just wanted to be left alone.To choose between the Taliban and us was simply to pick the lesser of two evils in their eyes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    USA/NATO have failed in their crusades. They have failed to convert Afghans to Christianity.I believe USA/NATO should quit Afghanistan, simply because they are too oppressive, too insulting for the people of Afghanistan. USA/NATO have unleashed killers in the Country and they are as much guilty of Crimes Against Humanity as Syria's Asad, Cambodia Pol Pot. Quran Insult and Killings are deliberate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It's about time we got out of there... I know there are plenty of arguments for us to stay there. The fact is, they don't really want us there, we don't want to be there. Perhaps the best thing is to just leave things to work out their own way? If that means a less centralised tribal nation, so be it. our presence there hasn't defeated the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, nor will it ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    "USA/NATO have failed in their crusades. They have failed to convert Afghans to Christianity." Are you referring to came conflict as everyone else, as this has nothing to do with converting Afghans to christians.

    Whilst this ack is deplorable, i just find it so hypocritical. The afghan gov and taliban are up in arms, yet how many civilians have the Taliban murdered and executed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    if I belived in God, then my prayer for Afghanistan would be that she be blessed with peace, free from the fear of an ignorant West.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    This article shares a rich observation of the situation, however is in parts provocative too , I'd say. For instance, this quote: "Northerners - Tajiks, or Uzbeks for example - often regard the Pashtuns in the south as trouble makers who get what they deserve" is not only generalizaing, not only untrue, but also tends to define/draw borders between geographical parts of the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Thank you, Mr. Urban, for a very impressive article. I look forward to more from the BBC with this NEW, soberer level of analysis. I marvel at the naiveté of foreign troops wandering through —often without even translator— with their groovy sunglasses; at the daily Pentagon and White House apologies for yet another wedding party annihilated, for yet another circus like Abu Graib.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @14 Naveed, oh be quiet and look at how ridiculous your comment is, Nato weren't there to convert anyone, how silly are you to think the world revolves around your religion. We were there because of your corrupt countries being perfect training camps for those who want to commit terror against our Western countries.


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