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Afghan Report: June 9, 2006

June 9, 2006, Volume 5, Number 16
A traffic accident involving a U.S. military truck and several civilian cars in which up to five Afghans were killed in Kabul on May 29 sparked the most serious riots in the capital in years and has led to questions of whether there were spoilers at work or the incident was a spontaneous public reaction to an unfortunate incident.

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 well coordinated and seemed to have had a well-planned agenda that went beyond the issue of desecrating the Koran (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," May 17, 2005).

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 protestors 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. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan government troops patrolled the streets of Kabul and the parliament met in a special session on May 30 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."

Tanks and other Afghan National Army vehicles were deployed on May 30 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 on May 30 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 a dozen 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 Yusof 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."

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 Wahid Muzhda 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 Gol, 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. (Ron Synovitz)

The United States and its coalition partners now find themselves confronted not only by a seemingly stronger Taliban, but, following the deadly traffic accident and riot in Kabul, also by a population that is suddenly expressing long-held resentment of the foreign forces that they blame for all that is wrong with their country.

The reappearance of the Taliban has been news for several months. But the Bush administration expresses little concern about the fighting. In an interview with RFE/RL on May 19, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs Richard Boucher said renewed Taliban maneuvers were to be expected.

Boucher said military activity always drops off during Afghanistan's harsh winters, and increases with each spring thaw. Further, he said, Afghan and coalition forces are finally able to patrol new areas of the country, increasing the opportunities for combat.

"What fundamentally is going on here is that the [Afghan] government, the [Afghan] army -- the governmental authority in Afghanistan is pushing out into new areas, into areas where there hasn't been a lot of government, into areas where the Taliban operated freely," Boucher said. "You have NATO expanding out into different provinces now, and there's some effort by the Taliban not only to challenge the government, but also to challenge the NATO troops and see how they'll react compared to how U.S. forces react."

Rallying The Drug Producers

James Phillips, who specializes in foreign-security issues at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to three ways the Taliban have been able to mount a much stronger insurgency this year than they have in past years. First, he said, they've had time to regroup. Second, they're getting increasingly more help from sympathizers on the other side of Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

Finally, Phillips said that the Taliban "also is trying to capitalize on the Afghan government's strengthening antinarcotics campaign, and it's trying to reach out to poppy farmers and drug smugglers and refiners. Some of the most recent reports have described an upsurge in fighting in Helmand Province, which is the epicenter of the Afghan poppy production."

Phillips noted that Karzai's government has had a spotty record trying to persuade Afghan farmers to give up the cultivation of opium poppy, one of the country's major cash crops.

Taliban Operating More Easily

Frederic Grare, who studies foreign affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Taliban didn't even have to wait for this year's spring thaw to begin making trouble for the forces of the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. He said it reorganized well enough to make its presence felt last winter.

Grare also pointed to civilian unrest in Afghanistan as making the Taliban's job easier. He said he's not sure whether the population in some regions are actively helping the insurgents or even joining them, but they're not resisting them, either.

"The Taliban are regrouped. It does operate also on a larger scale because it's easier now for them," Grare said. "It's easier because, again, the population is no longer opposing them, in a way. So in many places along the border [with Pakistan], the day may belong to the coalition forces, but night belongs to the Taliban, and the whole population wants to be out of the confrontation. It's difficult to say whether they're [the Taliban are] massively recruiting the population, but do they operate easier? Yes, definitely."

Hostility To Foreign Presence

Grare said this indicates a broader problem for the United States and its allies: the simmering hostility of the Afghan people. Primarily, he said, they resent the U.S. troops because they are perceived, more than forces from other countries, as supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai.

And Grare said most Afghans see Karzai as corrupt. He stressed that the government isn't necessarily abusive to the Afghan people, merely negligent. "Afghanistan is so poor that if you don't do something about it, then clearly the people are being hurt and live miserably," he said.

"Corruption to some extent acceptable, providing government delivers," Grare added. "At this time we have a government which delivers very little and is very corrupt. So, you know, that makes corruption even less acceptable."

Grare said if the United States isn't careful, the Afghans could end up rejecting its forces just as they violently rejected the Soviets during the 1980s. But he said such an outcome is by no means imminent, and he believes Washington has time to rectify the situation.

Adapting To Xenophobia

Phillips of the Heritage Foundation agreed that there is public resentment, and he expressed concern about it. But he said such feelings are common among the populations of countries hosting foreign forces.

"There's always going to be people trying to stir up those charges," he said. "The U.S. should be concerned, but it should realize that no matter what it does, there're going to be people spreading disinformation about Karzai's government being corrupt, being ineffective. There are networks that specialize in whipping up people to a frenzy. I don't think there's anything the U.S. can do about that."

Phillips said xenophobia has long been a problem in Afghanistan, and the United States and its allies there are just going to have to get used to coping with that reality. He said a change of military behavior, not a significant change of policy, is all that is necessary to improve relations with the Afghan people. (Andrew Tully)

An essential part of Kabul's strategy to eradicate opium-poppy cultivation is to help Afghan farmers grow alternative crops. Some critics argue that few crops can earn Afghan farmers enough money to be a realistic alternative to opium. But in the western province of Herat this week, a provincial agriculture official announced that he may have one answer that can help.

Saffron is more than an aromatic spice for rice, soups, and meat dishes. Dried filaments from the saffron flower have been used for thousands of years to make perfumes, colored dyes, and even herbal medicines.

In Herat, an agriculture expert says saffron also could help wean farmers away from growing opium poppies.

Bashir Ahmad Ahmadi is the head of agriculture administration in the western Afghan province. Having just completed the test phase of a farming project there, he is now urging farmers in his region to grow the saffron flower -- Crocus Sativus Linneaus -- instead of opium poppies.

"Herati saffron has beaten the international record for the most productive farm yield. I can confirm this," Ahmadi says. "The world's top producers of saffron are able to get farm yields of about 8 kilograms of saffron per hectare. But the Herati saffron fields have been even more productive [than that]."

Painstaking Work

The red, thread-like filaments of saffron are actually dried stigmas from the saffron flower. Each flower contains only three stigmas. And those must be separated from the rest of the flower by hand. It takes more than 150,000 flowers to produce enough filaments for 1 kilogram of saffron.

Farmers plant saffron flowers as spherical bulbs -- or "corms" -- rather than as seeds. Ahmadi says the initial investment needed for so many flower bulbs, as well as the labor-intensive harvesting and production processes -- make saffron a difficult crop for Afghan farmers to start growing without help from the government in Kabul.

Still, he tells RFE/RL that hundreds of farmers in Herat Province are now interested in the crop after hearing how Ahmadi's 40-hectare test plot produced more than 320 kilograms of saffron.

"The farmers of Herat, especially from the Ghoryan and Pashtunzarghon districts, have been coming to us asking for saffron bulbs," Ahmadi says." They say they are unable to buy the flower bulbs themselves to get started. We have received hundreds of applications asking for these bulbs."

But despite the success of the test project for saffron in western Afghanistan, Ahmadi warns that better processing and marketing methods are needed to ensure Afghan saffron farmers receive a fair market price for the product.

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says he agrees.

"It is not sufficient to produce a crop, no matter how high your yields may be," Rubin says. "You have to be able to produce it at a cost that is competitive on the international market. And you have to be able to produce it at a quality that is competitive on the international market."

Looking For Help

Rubin tells RFE/RL that saffron is just one of several crops with a high value for a small volume -- something he says is necessary to provide a significant cash income to Afghan farmers. With the right infrastructure development, he says Afghan farmers eventually should be able to make good incomes from other spices, too, like cumin, or from essential oils that are distilled from plants.

"The problem of the developmental component of counternarcotics is not just finding some single other crop," Rubin says. "It means finding another basis for the economy of Afghanistan. It means many other crops -- which requires marketing and storage, road building, electricity, improved water supplies. Other industries go along with that, such as packaging and processing and so on, to create other kinds of employment."

Rubin says the lack of packaging and marketing facilities in neighboring Iran and Pakistan-administered Kashmir make it more difficult for saffron farmers there to get a fair market price for their harvests.

One example is the Khorasan region of Iran, just west of Herat. Khorasan is one of the world's largest saffron producing regions. Up to 85 percent of Iranian saffron is exported in bulk to Europe before it is processed or packaged. As a result, about 60 percent of Iranian saffron is distributed internationally under trademarks from Spain or the United Arab Emirates.

Most importantly, whereas an Iranian farmer typically gets just a few hundred dollars for each kilogram of high-quality unpackaged saffron, the same Iranian-grown saffron -- repackaged in Spain or Italy -- can sell for more than $2,000 per kilogram in the West.

Ahmadi agrees that Afghanistan must learn lessons from Iranian saffron producers and improve the way Afghan saffron is processed and packaged. He says that also would provide more legal jobs for seasonal farm workers. (By Ron Synovitz with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Reshtin Qadiri in Herat and Soltan Sarwar in Prague.)