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Afghanistan: Large Protest Held At Main U.S. Air Base

The protesters at Bagram air base On 26 July, a crowd of at least 1,000 people chanted anti-American slogans outside the main U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, which is located at Bagram in the northern Parwan Province. People had gathered at the gates of the heavily guarded facility to protest the detention of a local commander and seven others -- including a local mullah.

The commander whose arrest sparked the riot has been identified as Hamidullah, an engineer who was once associated with the radical Hizb-e Islami group led by fugitive former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
With more intrusive operations the U.S. faces the possibility of dealing with more hostility to its presence in Afghanistan.

While most sources have described the commander at the center of the Bagram riot as Hamidullah, Kabul-based Tolu Television in a 26 July broadcast identified the commander as Hajji Mohammad Hashem, also formerly associated with Hekmatyar's party.

Hekmatyar is currently considered the third party of the triumvirate fighting against Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and its foreign backers. The neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda account for the other two parties in this axis. In 2002, Hekmatyar declared jihad against the United States for its presence in Afghanistan. The following year the U.S. State Department named Hekmatyar as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 February 2003).

Most of the protesters where from Deh Mullah, a village east of the base, and were -- according to Parwan police chief Major General Mawlana Abdul Rahman Sayyedkhayli -- "enraged" by the "raid on Hamidullah's residence and his subsequent arrest in the "still of the night" by U.S. forces.

According to Sayyedkhayli, the former commander renounced armed opposition a decade ago and was working as a farmer.

Cindy Moore, a U.S. military spokeswoman, told Pajhwak Afghan News on 27 July that U.S. forces had recovered explosives from Hamidullah's residence and that the he was arrested on suspicion of planning an attack on Bagram. According to Moore, Afghan intelligence and police personnel were accompanying U.S. forces when the arrests were made -- a request made by Karzai to involve his government in cases involving Afghan citizens.

After less than one day in custody, the United States handed the eight men over to provincial authorities in Parwan on 27 July.

While the handover of the eight detainees to the Afghans might very well have quelled the anger of local residents of Bagram District, the longer term question of counterterrorist activities in Afghanistan, and the standing of the United States in that country, remains an open question.

There has been no credible accounting as to which of Afghanistan's former warlords have sincerely traded in their swords for plows, nor has any of them thus far been identified or arrested for their past deeds. Moreover, the Afghan judicial system remains in shambles with little hope of it returning soon to something that can be remotely regarded as a transparent and fair system in which cases can be tried. This situation is especially true in provinces where local loyalties often overpower any respect there is for the central Afghan government's laws and commitments, including its counterterrorism efforts. The Bagram riot clearly points to this problem, as no protests have targeted that base since late 2001 when some locals were arrested.

As such, the task for the United States in leading the war against terrorism and militancy in Afghanistan becomes very complicated. On one hand, with more intrusive operations the U.S. faces the possibility of dealing with more hostility to its presence in Afghanistan while on the other hand, in the absence of a robust Afghan commitment to investigate, arrest when needed, and incarcerate suspected terrorists, the chance for an Afghanistan free of the menace of terrorism might fall victim to short-term local expediencies.