Afghanistan shooting: Protests are peaceful, but era of cooperation closing

Days after a US soldier went on a shooting spree in Afghanistan, protests have remained mostly peaceful except for an insurgent attack on an Afghan government delegation.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Demonstrators chant anti- US slogans following Sunday's killing of civilians in Panjwai by a US soldier during a protest in Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. Hundreds of students in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday shouted angry slogans against the United States and the American soldier accused of carrying out the killings, the first significant protest in response to the tragedy.

Afghanistan has seen its first large-scale response to Sunday's early hour rampage by an American Army staff sergeant who allegedly left his base and killed 16 nearby villagers

Hundreds of students in the south and east of Afghanistan gathered for peaceful protests to mourn the murder of the villagers and demonstrate against American forces in their country. Meanwhile, an Afghan delegation that included two of President Hamid Karzai’s brothers and other high-profile officials came under attack during a visit to the site of the murders. None of the delegates were harmed, but at least one Afghan soldier was reported killed.

The attack comes as little surprise, as the Taliban vowed to revenge the “inhumane crime” allegedly committed by the rogue US soldier, but for many observers who’ve been anticipating a violent public response, the peaceful demonstrations represent an unexpected outcome.

While widespread violent unrest did not materialize, the incident has magnified frustrations with the ongoing American military presence. The anger promises to further hamper US and Afghan government efforts to find local partners. 

Even before the shooting, people in the area where it occurred “didn’t want to help the foreigners or the Afghan government on any issue, because of the civilian casualties in the area,” says Mohammad Qahir, a resident of the Panjwayi district where the incident took place on Sunday. “After this they will completely stop helping the government and the foreigners. The foreigners and the Afghans say they are here for the development of the area and to help, but they keep killing us.”

For years, Panjwayi district was a focal point of fighting in the country's restive south.

Mr. Qahir adds that many of the villagers in his area have been moved by the Taliban’s promise to seek revenge and see this pledge as more support and reassurance than they’ve received from the Afghan government.

Extending government influence into the restive south of Afghanistan has long proven a challenge. Last summer the local government void was magnified following the assassination of the president’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

An often controversial figure who exercised powers beyond his official position, Mr. Karzai controlled much of the political life in Kandahar and arguably provided the strongest governance there. Since his death, Kandahar has struggled to find effective leadership.

A widening gap between civilians and government?

“I believe this shooting will create a bigger gap between the people, the government, and the foreigners,” says Malalai Ishaqzai, a former Parliament member from Kandahar. “From the beginning the problem is that the central government did not try to set up a powerful local government in Kandahar. That’s why many people are not happy with this government and foreign soldiers. They were always harmed and suffering from problems.”

At a demonstration at eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar University, hundreds of students gathered to protest the mass murder in Kandahar along with the detention of one of their fellow students who was arrested by local intelligence authorities several weeks ago.

Among the usual anti-American slogans, protesters chanted, “Do not sign the strategic agreement with America.” The agreement, currently being negotiated by Afghan and American officials would allow the US to stay in Afghanistan for up to a decade after the 2014 deadline for troop withdrawal.

As recently as November, there was relatively widespread, but conditional support for US forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and the plan was endorsed by the country’s loya jirga, or grand assembly made up of local leaders from across Afghanistan.

Following the burning of Qurans on a US military base last month and Sunday’s massacre, however, the mood seems to be shifting further against the US.

Still students in both Nangarhar and Kandahar said they would work to ensure the demonstrations remain peaceful, unlike the Quran burning protests that claimed about 40 lives, including 4 NATO soldiers.

“Since Quran burning was an issue not just for the people in Kabul, but for all Muslims, all the Muslims reacted. This incident just belongs to a small village and a family and then Afghanistan,” says Raz Mohammad, an agriculture student at Kandahar University who was among the protesters. “This is a tragic incident where people lost their lives, but it will not get as big a reaction as the Quran burning. The issue with the Quran was on a religious level.”

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