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Atrocities in Bush's "other occupation"

June 9, 2006 | Page 7

NICOLE COLSON reports on the grim toll of Washington's "other" occupation.

WHILE MEDIA attention begins to focus on reports of atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq, the other U.S.-run occupation--of Afghanistan--receives relatively little attention.

Until last week, that is--when U.S. soldiers opened fire into a crowd of rioting Afghan citizens in Kabul, killing four and wounding several others, and sparking a riot that grew to include thousands.

The riot occurred after a runaway U.S. Army truck crashed into as many as 12 civilian vehicles, killing three people and wounding several others. U.S military convoys are know for traveling at high rates of speed through the streets of Kabul, to avoid roadside bombs.

Following the accident, hundreds of angry protesters began to gather at the scene, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to [U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid] Karzai." Their anger was fueled, according to some reports, because U.S. troops allegedly prevented bystanders from approaching the scene to help the injured.

The Pentagon called the incident "a tragic accident." But what most certainly wasn't an accident was what happened in the aftermath--when U.S. soldiers responded to the angry civilians who had begun pelting them with rocks by firing on the crowd.

Pentagon officials claim U.S. soldiers only fired "warning shots." "Our soldiers believed fire was coming from the crowd, and they fired their weapons in self-defense," U.S. military spokesperson Col. Tom Collins told the New York Times.

But according to Gen. Amanullah Gozar, the Kabul chief of police who witnessed the incident, "The first American vehicles were firing in the air, but the last one fired at the people," killing four. The crowd then turned on the Afghan police, burning one of their cars and stabbing a policeman, before spreading out through the city.

As many as 2,000 protesters fought with police, looting and setting fire to the offices of foreign organizations in the city's diplomatic section. In one of the city's main squares, protesters burned a picture of Karzai--even as he took to the airwaves to denounce rioters as "opportunists and agitators." In all, at least 12 people were killed and 138 were wounded in the rioting.

Meanwhile, according to Collins, U.S. soldiers involved in the incident will be asked for statements, and American officials will conduct a thorough investigation.

But Afghan citizens have little reason to believe such promises. Despite declaring the country "liberated" from the former Taliban government in 2001, some 23,000 U.S. soldiers and 9,000 NATO troops remain occupying the country.

Karzai, backed by the U.S. and elected two years ago, has seen his popularity plummet with the emergence of corruption scandals, growing poverty, an increased opium trade, atrocities committed by repressive warlords--and, increasingly, a revitalized Taliban.

"For most Kabul residents, electricity and running water are scarce, raw sewage runs in the streets, roads are broken, unemployment is high, especially among the young, and officials are corrupt," Newsweek reported recently. "Some complain that they have to pay the equivalent of a $15 bribe simply to get a mandatory national identity card, in a country where the average annual income is less than $800. Of roughly $10 billion in aid pledged by international donors since 2001, only half has actually been distributed."

Meanwhile, Col. Collins admitted to Newsweek, "I don't think there's any doubt the Taliban has grown in size and influence in some areas of the south. There are some areas that are not governed."

This is why the number of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan has actually risen in recent months--from 18,000 to 23,000. Additionally, the U.S. has escalated large-scale air strikes on the eastern and southern regions of the country, including Kandahar, Halmand and Urugan provinces--areas considered Taliban strongholds. Last week, coalition and Afghan troops had to recapture a district of the central southern province of Uruzgan, which fell under Taliban control for several days.

Casualties are also on the rise, with nearly 400 people killed in May alone. While the U.S. claims the bulk of the deaths are "militants" killed by coalition air strikes, reports suggest that large numbers of civilians are becoming victims of coalition bombs.

In late May, a U.S. bombing in the southern village of Azizi reportedly killed as many as 17 civilians, including several people at a religious school and residents of nearby homes. The U.S. claimed that an additional 20 to 80 "Taliban militants" were also killed in the attack, leading many to believe the real number of civilian casualties may have been higher.

That attack came on the heels of a coalition air strike that killed at least seven civilians in April in the eastern province of Kunar.

But don't expect any sympathy from the U.S. government. "Of course, people are told to be careful, but it is a matter of war, a war zone, in which our soldiers are trying...jointly to root out the terrorists," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN's Late Edition last weekend.

With NATO forces scheduled to take over "security" in southern Afghanistan next month, the U.S. is likely to step up its bombing raids to try to "stabilize" the country. And that will only mean more misery for ordinary Afghan civilians.

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