Details of the accident remain somewhat vague, as does the number of people killed in the accident and the events afterward. What is clear is that a heavy U.S. military truck that was leading a convoy reportedly experienced brake failure and rammed into several cars in the Khairkhana District, in the northern part of Kabul. Immediately after the accident a hostile mob gathered around the convoy. After an exchange of fire between the crowd and the U.S. forces, the convoy left the area, leaving the inadequate Afghan police force in charge of the situation.
In the aftermath of the accident a mob estimated at between 200 to 500 people went on a rampage, burning and looting property and marching towards the center of Kabul while chanting slogans against the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At the end of the day around 20 people were dead and more than 150 had sustained injuries.
Karzai Condemns U.S. Shooting, Rioters
Karzai condemned the firing by U.S. troops on the crowd and also has condemned the rioters, portraying them as insurgents and opportunists. In a televised speech he said he "strongly condemns the coalition forces' firing" on people blocking the path of the U.S. convoy. He said the rioters "destroyed some of our achievements in a matter of hours."
The possibility that the crowd may have fired on U.S. troops is not debated by either official or unofficial Afghan sources.
Unlike the last major riots that occurred in Kabul a year ago, these disturbances were not premeditated. In May 2005, anti- U.S. demonstrations engulfed Kabul and many other cities in Afghanistan ostensibly in protest of a story in the U.S.-based magazine "Newsweek" that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, allegedly desecrated the Koran. Last year's riots were very well-coordinated and seemed to have had a well-planned agenda that went beyond the issue of desecrating the Koran.
Many observers conclude that the riots were spontaneous and were sparked by the accident. It is also important to understand that there was enough built-up frustration to continue to fuel the riotous protests beyond the initial destructive day.
While there is no evidence that a particular political group or groupings took advantage of the accident in Khairkhana to pursue their own agendas, the area where the accident occurred is predominately home to sympathizers of Shura-ye Nizar -- the group around the slain United Front (aka Northern Alliance) leader Ahmad Shah Mas'ud.
A Manipulated Protest?
The fact that some of the protesters were seen carrying posters of Mas'ud have led some to believe that the "opportunists" were sympathizers of the Shura-ye Nizar who took the opportunity given to them by the tragic accident to publicly demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Karzai and his most powerful supporter, the United States.
Commenting on the riots in Kabul in an interview with Milan's "Corriere della Sera" published on May 30, former Afghan President and later the official head of the United Front, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said that "the executive is weak, corrupt, and incompetent." Karzai's administration "is losing the support" of the Afghans, Rabbani added. The Afghan National Assembly's Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), of which Rabbani is a powerful member, has called for -- among other things -- the open prosecution of the U.S. soldiers involved in the accident.
While it seems highly unlikely that the political opposition to Karzai actually had a hand in the riots in Kabul, it is very obvious that the opposition is carefully using its political capital from the disaster.
The armed opposition -- mainly represented by the neo-Taliban -- is still very active in Afghanistan. But Karzai's administration must also be careful of the high level of dissent that exists in areas deemed safe by most people -- as even a small spark can ignite a fire.
U.S. Marines operating in Helmand Province in 2002 (epa)
RULING A RESTIVE LAND: On February 12, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Jawaid Wafa spoke briefly with Helmand Province Governor MOHAMMAD DAOUD about the ongoing violence in his restive region on the border with Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Recently, there have been many clashes and attacks by insurgents in Helmand Province. What in your view facilitates these attacks, especially in Helmand?
Mohammad Daoud: This province has a 160-kilometer border with Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. In reality, armed people, armed terrorists, from the other side of the border cross the border into Helmand. They carry out attacks and return back. It is a serious problem in Helmand that within our borders there is neither tribal good will, nor are there are special military or security measures to prevent enemies from crossing back and forth.
RFE/RL: The attacks and clashes have not only been between government forces and insurgents. There have been various clashes in different parts of Helmand between police and purported drug smugglers. How do you explain this?
Daoud: Drug smugglers also use the border for their own purposes. They have opened markets on the border and process opium there. This is a serious problem along our border. We are in touch with our authorities on this problem.
RFE/RL: There are government border police patrol your border. What is their role in preventing illegal crossings?
Daoud: Along this 160-kilometer border, there are car routes, walking routes. We have border police, but unfortunately, either because of their own problems or because of weak administration, they have not been able to stop the crossing.