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Cultural Gap Strains U.S.-Afghan Relations

Conflict: Thumbs-up signs by Americans are seen as insults by some. Misunderstanding could undermine support for Karzai government.


TARIN KOT, Afghanistan — A thumbs-up gesture meant as a friendly greeting by American soldiers is misconstrued as an insult. Shows of force meant to intimidate Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives frighten friends too.

A cultural gap, more than politics, seems to be playing a large role in the cooling of relations between U.S. troops and the Afghans who welcomed them as liberators. Some former friends say it's time for the Americans to go.

"We don't know why they stay here. They should go," said Ghulam Distigar, guard at the Uruzgan provincial governor's residence.

If frictions continue, that could make the job of hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban more dangerous because U.S. troops rely heavily on Afghans for information and help.

Discontent over the U.S. presence could also undermine support for President Hamid Karzai's government because it is closely identified with the Americans.

Akhter Mohammed, head of security at the governor's residence, slapped his chest in anger as he demonstrated how American soldiers reportedly searched Afghan women aboard a bus stopped at a checkpoint near Tarin Kot.

The governor, Jan Mohammed Khan, stepped in to demand that the checkpoint be shut down and the Americans complied, Mohammed said. But anger remains.

"This is the third time there has been a complaint that they searched our women," Mohammed said. "We are Pashtuns and Muslims. For us, our women are our honor. We told the governor to stop them, that Osama [bin Laden] and Mullah [Mohammed] Omar were not hiding under burkas. Our women are not Al Qaeda ."

At Bagram air base, headquarters of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Col. Roger King, a spokesman, said American troops "as a rule" don't search women unless a female soldier does the checks.

"This sounds like the common stories that are passed among the populace by our enemies as part of their disinformation campaign," King said.

In conservative rural areas, even things that seem innocent to Americans are seen as affronts.

Mohammed and a dozen fellow guards say they were insulted when American soldiers behind high walls and protected by sandbags made a thumbs-up gesture.

"I felt so ashamed when they did this," Mohammed said. "Why is he doing it? What does it mean?"

Mohammed said he has no grudge against U.S. troops. He fought with Americans against the Taliban and is a firm supporter of Karzai. He was with U.S. troops in December at Shah Wali Kot, about 30 miles from Tarin Kot, when a bomb missed its target and killed three Special Forces soldiers and 25 Afghan allies. "There was dust everywhere. You couldn't see. It was just a mistake," he said.

But the war is won, he says, and the Americans should leave his region. "There are no Al Qaeda or big Taliban in our province anymore," he said. "Our security is good and we are in control."

Many people in Uruzgan province are also angry over a July 1 incident in which an AC-130 gunship opened fire on a village wedding party, reportedly killing 25 people.

The U.S. Central Command cleared the crew, saying the plane had been fired on from the ground. Shooting weapons in the air in celebration is an Afghan custom.

And despite support for Karzai and a long history of enmity toward the Taliban, many rural Afghans identify more culturally with their defeated compatriots than their American allies.

Not far from Tarin Kot, nearly 20 graves of fallen Taliban have become a shrine. They are decorated with charred and twisted metal salvaged from vehicles hit by U.S. air-to-surface missiles.

"They are martyrs. They died horribly. People say that at night, light shines from their graves because God is so happy with them," said one man, who was afraid to give his name to a Westerner. "We're not Taliban and we pray for Karzai, but these men who died were good Muslims."

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