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Afghanistan: Kabul Residents Anxious About Post-Riot Future

Afghan National Army troops in Kabul on May 30 (epa) Afghan government troops are patrolling the streets of Kabul and the parliament is meeting in a special session today after deadly rioting swept through the Afghan capital on May 29. Some Afghans say the violence reflects growing resentment toward the presence of foreign troops and nongovernmental organizations. But there have also been suggestions that antigovernment political groups encouraged the violence. Others accuse criminals of hijacking an angry protest to facilitate a crime spree after the crash of a U.S. military truck killed five people. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has described the rioters as "agitators" and "enemies of Afghanistan."

PRAGUE, May 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Tanks and other Afghan National Army vehicles have been deployed today around Kabul. Afghan soldiers patrol the streets, while most police stand in the open -- their checkpoints destroyed by angry rioters on May 29.

Troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are coordinating closely with the Afghan authorities, but are less in evident in the city.

Isolated Incident?

Jean McKenzie, director of the Kabul office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), said today that many Kabul residents are wondering what will happen next.

"It's quiet," McKenzie said. "But I think that the question on everyone's mind is: 'Was this an isolated incident? Are things just going to continue as normal? Or are we seeing the future. Are we seeing a growing insurgency in the capital itself?'"

Analysts said several factors fueled rioting across Kabul after a U.S. military truck crashed, killing five Afghans.

At least eight Afghans were killed in the subsequent rioting. Frustration among youths about social conditions, anger at the apparent arrogance of foreign troops, and sheer criminality are all said to have played a part.

Crime Spree

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Yousef Stanizai told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that scores of people have been arrested. He said an investigation is under way to determine if any political groups were encouraging violence.

"Regarding [May 29's] incidents in Kabul, we have arrested around 140 people so far -- most of them young people. They are still under investigation," Stanizai said. "Some of those arrested have admitted that they were trying to take advantage of the situation to commit robberies. We will determine later what their real goal was."

Protesters throw stones at a U.S. military vehicle in Kabul on May 29 (epa)

Paul Barker is the country director for CARE International -- an aid group that had its Kabul offices set alight by the rioters. Barker told reporters it would be wrong to call the riots "anti-American" because many foreign organizations and aid groups were also targeted.

Barker said he thinks the bulk of the violence was caused by criminals on a looting spree.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed with that assessment in a televised speech within hours of the riots on May 29.

"Traffic accidents happen all over the world. Every day, among our people, tens of these accidents happen and people die," Karzai said. "This should not be a reason for violence and the destruction of our country. We should try to investigate what has happened to discover the facts. And those agitators and criminals who used this accident as an excuse for destruction, we should recognize them as the enemies of the country. They should be punished. We will deal with them."

Seizing On Opportunity

Nader Nadery, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, said according to AFP that some rioters were known members of illegal armed groups that have been waiting for an opportunity to create disorder.

In addition to criminals, Nadery said, some marginalized political groups appear to have seized the opportunity to create chaos. He said their motivation would be to show that Afghans are unhappy with foreign troops or with the Afghan government.

Indeed, Kabul-based political analyst Waheed Mujda suggested the violence was a reflection of indignation among Afghans about the behavior of U.S. soldiers.

But McKenzie argued that it is difficult to separate anti-American sentiments from anti-foreigner sentiments in Kabul.

"[The rioting] is not just anger at the foreign presence," McKenzie said. "It is anger at rising unemployment, police corruption, and government corruption. It's anger at what they see as the slow pace of reform."

From her vantage point in Kabul, McKenzie said the violence on May 29 was too widespread -- and moved through Kabul too quickly -- to have been a completely spontaneous reaction to the traffic incident.

"There certainly were instigators. There are also reports that some of the political parties may have been involved in the unrest," McKenzie said. "We saw not just demonstrators [but]...groups of usually young men [with political signs. And there are] accusations that antigovernment groups were giving demonstrators materials and sending them out to foment violence."

Public Perception

Many Afghans say they are not bothered to see foreign troops in their country. But still, experts say the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan must be aware that the dynamics of public opinion could be shifting as a result of coalition air strikes that hit civilian compounds -- or because of the general attitude of foreign troops toward Afghans.

Many Kabul residents have complained that U.S. soldiers drive recklessly in the capital and worry more about their own safety than the safety of ordinary Afghans.

Another Kabul resident, Akhtar Gul, told RFE/RL that he is angry when Afghans are injured or suffer damages because of foreign troops and are never compensated. But he said he was also shocked and dismayed at what followed the deadly accident.

"What the Americans did was very insulting," he said. "But then, when the looting and violence started [on May 29], this also was an insult to Afghanistan."

President Karzai said both the Afghan government and officials in the U.S.-led coalition military officials will stay in contact with the families of the five people who were killed in the May 29 traffic incident. He also vowed that compensation will be paid.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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