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Is the surge ending or dispersing the insurgency?

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Embed in Trouble
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Four Days in Dulab
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  Dispatch: Kabul Erupts in Gunfire

Surrounded by gunfire in Kabul, our intrepid correspondent describes what makes a spark become a raging riot.
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Kabul, Afghanistan -- Today in Kabul the veneer of national progress was ripped off, leaving Afghans dead and wounded and sending this capital city into a lockdown. Four and a half years after the US-led military offensive successfully overthrew the Taliban government, which was protecting Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda, Kabul has erupted in gunfire, leaving citizens shattered and their confidence in the future shaken.

Sequestered behind the tall walls of Le Monde Guesthouse in central Kabul, from early morning to middle afternoon -- for more than five hours -- I have been surrounded by the sound of gunfire, AK-47 rifles and hand guns, automatic weapons, and a few heavy explosions, probably rocket-propelled grenades. And sequestered is where I must remain, since in Kabul today foreigners -- especially Americans -- are not free to walk the streets.

What sparked the violence that has left at least 20 dead and more than 100 wounded was a vehicular accident on the outskirts of Kabul. Here are the facts, as I know them at this time: A US military convoy was traveling in the northern part of city, and at approximately 9:00 a.m. one of its vehicles slammed into a line of cars -- some reports say as many as twelve cars -- which resulted in one Afghan fatality. A large crowd quickly surrounded the military convoy and began hurling stones at the US soldiers. The convoy of troops attempted to flee, and injured several more Afghans in the process. The police arrived, gunshots were fired, it's unclear by whom, and several Afghans lay dead on the road.

Approximately an hour later, the sound of gunfire could be heard in the city center, where I am located. At first there were only a few shots, which I mistook for the pounding of hammers. But the pattern and the sharpness of the sounds soon alerted me that it was gunfire. It wasn't long before the cracking of arms was nearly constant.

Two hours later, this was around 1:00 p.m., I heard a large crowd of demonstrators outside our compound walls chanting "Down with America." Nearby, black smoke billowed into the light blue sky. The gunfire became more intense, and then, evidently, the protesters quickly dispersed.

The Afghan media reported that protesters had blocked several major streets, and there were gun battles between Afghan army troops and police and the protesters. What I was hearing certainly sounded like gun battles in the streets.

I was informed by a French banker several blocks away that demonstrators were throwing large stones through his bank windows. Other protestors were whirling large sticks. Shops on his street were being looted, and some protesters were clearly armed with pistols and rifles.

Afghan television reports several cars, including several police cars, have been set on fire.

More information is coming in: A foreigner was dragged from his car and beaten; CARE International was attacked and damaged; an Afghanistan television station was thrashed and is now off the air . . .

It is now 2:00 p.m., and again I hear the shouting of protesters, not from the west as it was before but from the east. The gunfire has become intense, the heaviest I have heard. Bullets fly overhead; it appears the shooting is now coming from all sides. The manager and I consider getting the rifles out of the storage room. One of the two maids is crying, and she is unable to stop. Two helicopters sweep across Kabul. Their spinning blades drown out the small arms fire, but for only a few seconds. The sharp crack of gunfire grows even stronger -- a heavy burst of weapons on the east side of the wall, which is in the direction of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. There are three heavy explosions, this to the south. Just over the wall, a pistol fires off several rounds . . .

Behind the Gun Fire

This morning, when the first television report appeared on the US convoy accident that resulted in several fatalities, a Scotsman in the guesthouse immediately blamed the "trigger-happy American soldiers." He lamented that "this latest US gunslinger incident would set back the Europeans' effort to reconstruct" this war-scarred country.

In fact, Afghans often complain about the high speed and aggressive driving of US military convoys in Kabul. The US military responds that these driving tactics are necessary to protect their troops from attack. That is a response that only increases the feeling among Afghans that the US military is dangerous to their health.

Last week, a young man lectured me on how US troops cannot be trusted. He pointed to the recent US bombing in southern Afghanistan that he said left 34 civilians dead, including several small children. "The US military kill and don't care," he said.

Increasingly, there is the perception in Afghanistan that the US military is out of control, that it shoots first and cares little about the Afghan people. A teenager who works in a copy store told me, "We want your help, we need your money and knowledge to remake Afghanistan, but we don't want your military."

An Afghan who just came back from the streets tells me that hundreds of protesters marched on the palace of US-backed President Hamid Karzai, shouting "Death to Karzai! Death to America!" Suddenly I remember what another Afghan told me several weeks ago: "Karzai is not our president, he is your puppet."

More sparked this violent riot, however, than just a growing negative view of US troops. Kabul is a city of foul open severs, where poverty remains gross and shocking. Some Afghans call Kabul "the toilet." Unemployment remains sky-high with at least half of working-age adults unable to find a real job. Supposedly 40 percent of the people don't have enough food. After four and a half years, many feel their lives are not improving, and they are losing hope that they will improve. That can become a dangerous spark.

What has happened in Afghanistan is something that happens often. We promise and then we don't deliver. The dashed hopes of locals turn to resentment, hostility, and finally violence. But it is not only the US that promised so much to Afghans -- security, reconstruction, democracy -- Europeans and other countries also promised the moon. And of course one delivers the moon. Not even the richest countries on the planet.

With Kabul in lockdown and sporadic gunfire still echoing through the city, the perception that the US military is the problem and not the solution will certainly grow. But, if the reconstruction of Afghanistan does not deliver tangible results to many more of its desperate citizens, the echoing of gunfire will also grow in Kabul.

Stewart Nusbaumer is now based in Kabul, Afghanistan. You can email Stewart at

Posted Monday, May 29, 2006


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