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by Felix kuehn

Archive for the ‘violence’ tag

Kandahar in revolt: The Qur’ān demos in the light of history

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The sort of violent demonstrations which took place in Kandahar in the first week of April against the burning of a Qur’an in the United States, with large gatherings of people and clashes with Afghan security forces, have not been seen since the late 1950s and early 1980s. Usually, says our guest blogger, the freelance writer, Felix Kuehn who lives in the city,* protests are engineered by one or other strongman who sends out his people to pay for day labourers to join the procession; the protests last a few hours at most and normally pass quietly. He and the younger generation of Kandaharis have seen nothing like this before.

In 1959, Louis Dupree’s description of the violent protests that broke out in Kandahar over government tax reforms are reminiscent of what took place here forty years later:

‘The crowd moved away from the mosque road. Bast [sanctuary]**would not be declared this year. Quickly, several ultra-conservative religious leaders and landlords whipped up the pay-i-luch (‘barefoot boys’; similar groups in Kabul are called sher bacha, ‘lion boys’) of the Qandahari bazaar, who have a reputation for troublemaking. What began as a traditional refusal to pay taxes rapidly grew into a anti-government riot. Obvious manifestations of modernisation were attacked, including the local cinema. The rioters later regretted this, for they did enjoy those Indian movies. They also damaged a girls’ school, several government buildings, and entered the women’s public bath (hamam).’***

It was not until 1980, that Kandahar saw similarly violent demonstrations – this time against the ‘Soviet occupation’ and the ‘puppet’ government in Kabul. ‘Soviets Wary As Protest Grows in Key Afghan City’ was how one reporter described protests where gunshot was heard across the city.**** A few months later, in May 1980, 60 protesters were killed in one demonstration. Last week, General Petraeus, seemed to echo the worries of his Soviet predecessors, when he said, ‘every security-force leader’s worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob, especially [a mob] that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions, in this case, perhaps understandable passions.’

The local government blamed the protests on ‘enemies of the people and country’ whom they said had placed themselves among the demonstrators for the outbreak of violence. There has been much speculation as to the role of the Taleban in the protests — both in Kandahar and elsewhere. The Taleban website ran articles on the demonstration in Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar and later released an op-ed. There have also been numerous rumours about inciting sermons being given at the city’s mosques and insurgents taking part in the demonstrations, yet the events that unfolded in Kandahar seem to be more than a just a demonstration hijacked by insurgents. They were a representation of a host of issues that have fostered the discontent of the population in the south. The violence cannot just be written off by blaming the Taleban. Details of how the protests developed show that Petraeus is right to be worried.

On the morning of Saturday 2 April, people gathered in the Charsuq area, the first shots were fired (by unknown people) a few minutes after 9am and then the situation deteriorated rapidly. As the demonstrators moved through the city, shops and markets were destroyed and tires set on fire. Four local journalists,**** were severely beaten and their equipment destroyed. The Kandahar Press Club said the demonstrators were carrying sticks and stones and that some had weapons. According to one source, they denounced journalists as infidels and said Americans that should be killed.

They also broke into Zarghuna Ana High School for girls, where they set a school bus on fire and destroyed desks. ‘In the city all the streets seem to have become blackened with the fire,’ said one friend on Saturday evening. ‘Lots of shops are destroyed.’ Demonstrators had ripped out doors and destroyed storefronts. The movie-market, a multi-storey complex that houses dozens of DVD shops, had been set on fire. ‘Yes, they set the shops on fire and were burning things outside,’ one witness told me. ‘I saw one boy who was carrying out a new DVD player and wanted to throw it onto the fire, but another snatched it out of his hand and ran away with it.’ Dozens of Qur’ans were burned in the fires. ‘In America one crazy guy burns a Qur’an and here the demonstrators burn a hundred,’ said one friend. ‘This is not the Islamic way. Many of these demonstrators are young, they don’t even know why they are demonstrating.’

Kandahar City has a diverse population that has swollen significantly in the past decade, people fleeing from the military campaigns in the district come to the city, and refugees return from abroad. There are hundreds of mosques and mullas in the city; even though they don’t necessarily form part of the insurgency, many can easily be compared to Dupree’s ‘ultra-conservative religious leaders’ who hold views comparable to those of the leadership of the Taleban insurgency. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, there has been an underlying current of conflict between the mostly-rural mullas and the central state.

Much of Kandahar is conservative — and ‘very emotional,’ as some friends have put it. Were there insurgents at the demonstration? Without a doubt, yes. Taleban ‘members’ or affiliates are known to be in the city; they have been present in increasing numbers since at least a year by now. A number of people have observed that Taleban have been coming more to the city following the increased military operations in the surrounding districts. A substantial number has always been here, as well as tacit and passive supporters who might not play an active role but hold similar views to the insurgents. Demonstrators were reported to have been shouting slogans in support of the Islamic Emirate and Mulla Mohammad Omar and carrying white flags ( ‘Taleban flags’) and other symbols that depict references to the insurgency.

Yet, the depiction of the demonstrations in Kandahar as being orchestrated by the Taleban is simplistic and ignores a much broader underlying sentiment amongst the population concerning the American and foreign forces: a lack of trust. Many Kandaharis believe the United States’ ultimate goal is not to defeat the Taleban but rather has a hidden agenda embedded in wide-ranging conspiracy theories concerned with Central Asia, oil, Pakistan, China, Iran, and at times Islam itself. This perception has grown considerably in the past two years, and is echoed from Provincial council members to the day labourers.

Behind the swift move to blame the Taleban lies the artificial delineation of the Taleban and the population. Lines in Kandahar are naturally blurred. Religious students and mullas, while not taking actively part in the insurgency or even not lending tacit support, nevertheless hold conservative views. You do not have to be a Taleb in order to oppose the local and central government, the foreign forces and Afghan security forces in Kandahar.

Various things helped create the conditions for these demonstrations: the burning of the Qur’an itself, the recently published pictures of the so-called kill-team that shows smiling American soldiers holding up the head of a dead Afghan civilian, the immense pressure that the local population finds itself under, as well as the actions of the foreign forces and the Afghan government. Kandahar’s demonstrations potentially have far-reaching implications. They should be seen as indicators that are far more genuinely representative of ‘public opinion’ than any of the recent polls which claim to represent what people in the south are thinking.

* Felix Kuehn is a writer/researcher based in Kandahar city, he is the co-editor of Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef’’s autobiography My Life with Taleban, and co-author of the forthcoming book An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taleban/al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010. He blogs less than occasionally on www.felixkuehn.com.

** Bast is a custom which still permits a Muslim to remain in a holy place – or other area designated bast – unmolested by government authority.

*** Louis Dupree, Afghanistan. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 536-7 6; Herald Tribune Wire Service, ‘Soviets Wary As Protest Grows in Key Afghan City,’ Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 8, 1980

**** Sami Zuberi, ‘60 killed in Afghan protests,’ Anchorage Daily News, May 3, 1980

***** Bashir Ahmad Naadim and his colleague Seddiqullah from the Pajhwok network, Sami Ghairatmal of al-Jazeera and Mr Allaudin, a photojournalist affiliated with Reuters.

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April 10th, 2011 at 1:50 pm

People are leaving

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The UN has closed shop today and apparently Kandahar airport will also close for a few days. Having only been back here for 3 days it is still hard to get a feeling for the city. There are more policemen on the street now, more checkpoints then a few months ago. A lot of our friends have left – some sold all their land, their houses and left Afghanistan altogether other just migrated to Kabul.

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Bomb site – Kandahar City, 27/04/2010

Things are changing – more big attacks in the city, an ever growing number of people disappearing and the built up of foreign troops all around sets out a bleak picture for what is to come in the next few months.

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April 27th, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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Kandahar Bombing

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Originally posted on Wednesday, 26 August 2009

It was perhaps twenty minutes after the call to prayer had sounded and we were breaking the fast, sitting on the floor around a plastic sheet with plates of rice and meat, when I was knocked sideways to the ground.

It takes a split second till you realize what happened; the shock-wave had blown out the windows, sending the glass flying like shrapnel into the room. It was a miracle that no one was injured.

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Our glass is double glazing, and glass kept on raining down the facade landing on our terrace, shattering into thousands of tiny pieces. There have been bomb blasts before that shook the ground, but nothing like this. I heard gunfire on the streets for several minutes, and I moved to the back rooms of the apartment with my friends. No pretty pictures this time, but I doubt I could have held the camera steady those first few minutes anyway.

Soon after the gunshots stopped, we walked out onto the terrace, glass crunching under our sandals and watched as police cars and ambulances rushed past towards the blast side. The air was filled with dust and a few blocks down I could the flashing lights and cars gathering. Quite soon after, a fire burst out, with flames and black smoke billowing into the sky – firefighters passed by.
The blast site was near to Sharjah Bakery, a shop I visit most days for soda and sweets. Just across the street is a wedding salon, and the NDS/intelligence services office is close by along with a private security company and a construction company. A friend called and said it might have been a bomb factory that blew up. Some 40 minutes later reports came in that it was a car bomb. Casualties kept arriving at Mirwais hospital for hours after the explosion. People were being dug out of the collapsed building. This morning the toll had risen to 43 dead and 65 injured.

My desk is littered with pieces of plaster that have fallen off from the ceiling and the window frames sit next to the wall.
30 minutes after the blast a convoy of foreign troops drove by, the unmistakable sound of their heavy vehicles roaring through the streets, followed by more ambulances.

Smoke kept on rising into the sky hours later, even though the firefighters seemed to have managed to put out the fires. Helicopters were flying overhead through the night sky.

Sitting in the now windowless living room last night talking with my Afghan friends, one turns to me and says: “There are those Afghans who migrated to the west who say they miss Afghanistan!” He bursts out into laughter. “This is what they are missing!” Another shakes his head: “Fuck Kandahar. Fuck Afghanistan.”

Around 11:00pm people were being evacuated from the Continental guesthouse. The police chief was talking about another 4 possible suicide bombers who were still at large in the city and heated discussion broke out in my apartment as to whether or not we should stay or move to another building further away from the Continental guesthouse and the main roads.
In the end we stayed. The idea that a truck bomb would drive into our building and explode seemed unrealistic at the time.
Now the next morning, the air is filled with the sound of people cleaning up broken glass on the street. The shopkeepers just opposite our building have all lost their glass windowfronts. I can see the blast sight; some buildings are missing, and the ones adjacent to the center of the explosion seem derelict, without windows or frames, just the empty carcasses left standing.
The area around the Shah Jahan Restaurant is a popular area, with many people spending their evenings on the little green grass strip in the middle of the road. Half an hour ago I drove to the blast site, and the destruction leaves little doubt that this has been Kandahar’s biggest bomb so far: entire buildings were annihilated and squares of mud huts flattened.

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Sharjah Bakery is gone, the construction company reduced to a pile of bricks across the street from it. The restaurant itself collapsed, burying everyone inside underneath it.

Another friend called in and said he believed that the district chief of Khakrez was at the restaurant along with a number of government officials, but nothing is confirmed yet.

Emotions were running high yesterday, and security forces in town were quick to pull the trigger. Standing outside on the terrace waiting to being put through to CBC Radio for an interview, someone started firing his AK47, and a bullet whizzed past me, hitting the door and reaching as far as our living room.

A moment later CBC was on the phone:
“Tell us what is happening right now.”
“I’ve just been shot at…”

I did the interview anyway, even though I guess I must have been a little freaked out at the time, given the amount of swearwords I used.

In the end, though, no one is surprised. This is not a turning point or the start of something; it’s what has been happening all along for the past few years in Kandahar. Violence has been on the rise, and there is no security for the people of southern Afghanistan.

re-posted on the AfPak Channel

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January 8th, 2010 at 4:40 pm

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