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Operation Anaconda Leaves Bitterness in Its Wake

Afghanistan: Residents of battle-torn region say the U.S. bombed their homes and killed their relatives.

April 14, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Every morning, a forlorn procession of the bereft and the defeated gathers at the gates of the governor's pale yellow compound in this weather-beaten provincial outpost.

There are widows and orphans and stooped old men, all of them bearing tales of misery and loss written in flowing Persian script on slips of paper. These are sullen, bitter people.

"They are so angry, angry at the Americans," said Gen. Sahib Jan Loodin Alozai, the deputy governor of Paktia province, who processes the complaints. "They blame the Americans for all their troubles."

Nearly a month has passed since American-led Operation Anaconda ended here in the silver-capped mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Now the Americans are targets of residual hate and resentment in a province where support for the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network remains strong.

Some petitioners claim that American airstrikes killed their relatives. Others claim that their homes were destroyed by American bombs or missiles. Farmers complain that American soldiers have blocked access to their fields, ruining their spring planting season. People on the street glare and curse at passing American reporters. A Canadian reporter was seriously wounded last month by a grenade tossed into her vehicle a few miles outside town.

This is Pushtun country. Many people here are hostile to foreigners and sympathetic to the Pushtun-dominated Taliban. In their view, the Americans are Christian invaders who installed an interim government in Kabul dominated by the Pushtuns' ethnic rivals, Tajiks from the north.

In place of routed Taliban fighters, the Americans have helped install Pushtun commanders and fighters of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance in and around Gardez. These veterans of Afghan civil wars teamed with the American-led coalition forces to drive Taliban and Al Qaeda forces from their redoubt in the Shahi Kot valley, 25 miles southeast of here.

Even with the enemy on the run, the Americans and their Afghan allies are confronting a wellspring of sympathy that allows the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces to feed and arm themselves while they regroup. Unsigned leaflets, known as shabnama, or "night letters," have appeared urging Afghans to kill or kidnap foreign--especially American--journalists, troops or aid workers.

According to local officials, Taliban and Al Qaeda survivors have withdrawn to the south and east, into the mountains of neighboring Paktika province. They say others have retreated to the Pakistani Pushtun tribal area known as Waziristan.

Fears of Resurgence

But some are still active in the Shahi Kot valley, according to Capt. Steven O'Connor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces. O'Connor said rockets were fired several miles from coalition troops on April 3, causing no casualties but heightening fears of an enemy resurgence.

Maj. Tony de Reya, a British intelligence officer, said Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are engaged in a "tactical pause."

Abdul Rahim, a U.S.-backed commander in Gardez, said that although there might be as many as 900 surviving Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to the south and east, none are left in his town.

"The only Al Qaeda and Taliban around here are dead ones," Rahim said over a steaming lunch of meat and rice inside a command post.

Rahim, a wiry little man with a hooked nose and a deep sunburn, said his men continue to find enemy corpses, weapons, ammunition and training manuals inside caves in the valley. About 50 caves have been cleared and destroyed and a handful of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters captured, he said.

American and coalition forces are conducting "clearance operations" south and east of the Shahi Kot valley, Rahim said. Special Forces troops launch missions from an adobe fortress guarded by Afghan gunmen on the southern outskirts of Gardez. From time to time, American helicopters swoop low over the rooftops as they head south in search of signs of the enemy.

But in Gardez, many consider the Americans the enemy. Two incidents, in particular, have stoked passions here.

On Dec. 20, American warplanes killed 50 to 60 people in a convoy in Paktia. Survivors said the victims were tribal elders headed to Kabul, the Afghan capital, for the inauguration of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. The Pentagon said the dead were Taliban members who had opened fire on the planes.

On March 6, the Pentagon has acknowledged, women and children were among 14 people killed by an American airstrike on an Al Qaeda convoy fleeing the Shahi Kot valley. The civilians were family members traveling with Al Qaeda fighters.

"There were women and children in that convoy," Sayed Aminullah, an Afghan worker for CARE International in Gardez, said of the March attack. "You don't drop bombs on them, whatever the reason."

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