Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Garmsir Protest Shows Taleban Reach
Emotions are running high in the Garmsir district of Helmand province this week after Afghan security forces fired on protesters, killing at least six people and injuring others.
Observers say the January 12 disturbance may have seriously damaged the image of the government and foreign troops in one of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces.
Garmsir was one of Helmand’s success stories – a district where recent military operations by United States forces have brought a measure of security to a previously unstable area.
That changed on January 12 when a group of several hundred demonstrators massed in the district centre, to protest at an alleged desecration of a copy of the Koran by US forces.
National security forces opened fire after reportedly coming under attack. Eyewitnesses say that at least nine people died and many more were wounded. The official count was six dead.
Helmand officials and Garmsir residents alike insist that the demonstration were carefully orchestrated by the Taleban in order to free some Taleban prisoners from jail, as well as to cast a shadow over the image of foreign forces.
“This was a plot by the Taleban,” Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for the office of the Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, said. “They may have threatened or forced people to participate.”
According to Ahmadi, the mastermind behind the demonstrations was Mullah Naim, former senior Taleban representative in Helmand and now a prominent commander.
The trouble began with a joint International Security Assistance Force/Afghan National Army operation in Darweshan village on January 10, targeting the houses of two alleged drug traffickers. Narcotics play a major role in Helmand, the world centre of opium poppy cultivation.
The Taleban alleges that a copy of the Koran was damaged with knives during the raid. ISAF vehemently rejects these accusations.
“While denying these allegations, we take them very seriously and support a combined investigation with local Afghan authorities," said Major General Michael Regner, ISAF Joint Command deputy chief of staff for operations. "ISAF is an international force that includes Muslim soldiers, and we deplore such an action under any circumstances.”
The Taleban were quick to spread their claims to local people.
“The Taleban need such opportunities for their fight,” said an active Taleban commander who did not want to be named. “When we heard that the infidels have acted this way in Darweshan, we took advantage of the fact and alerted the people, showed them their duty to their faith. By God we are Muslims and will defend Islam.”
Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi drummed up support for the protests, sending out numerous messages to media representatives to attend the demonstration in Garmsir. The insurgents also spread the word through loudspeakers and information sheets, and sent text messages out on satellite phone to more far-flung areas.
On January 12, a crowd gathered in the Hazarajoft bazaar in the centre of Garmsir. At first things were fairly orderly, say eyewitnesses.
“People were going about their business as usual,” Sharifullah, a Garmsir resident, said. “The shops were open. Then we heard that demonstrators were on their way. Some people closed their shops but others were still open when a group of around 50 people came and began to make a lot of noise.”
Another Garmsir resident, Ustad Mattu, took up the story, “Within minutes dozens more demonstrators appeared but they did not attack anyone or damage the shops. They were patient. The Americans came with their tanks and people began throwing stones at them. When a large group of demonstrators approached them, the Americans fired in the air.”
The local authorities say Afghan forces opened fire when they came under attack.
“National forces shot at the demonstrators because the Taleban were shooting at them,” said a security official who would not speak on the record.
A spokesman for the Helmand governor said one Afghan security official was killed in the incident. “The government forces had to shoot to avoid more damage,” he said.
The exact number of dead and wounded will be difficult to establish. A delegation sent by Mangal to investigate determined that six civilians had been killed and seven wounded but other sources give higher figures.
Shokurullah, from Garmsir, brought his brother to the emergency hospital in Lashkar Gah. He was very angry as he described the shootings.
“The government forces shot my brother in the chest,” he said. “He was innocent. He was only taking revenge for the Koran.”
According to Shokurullah, ten people were killed and at least 13 injured during the demonstration.
“All the dead were killed by national security forces,” said a police officer who would not give his name. “But it was not their fault. The Taleban caused this.”
Garmsir district governor Abdullah Jan insisted that the government had acted appropriately.
“We knew there was a demonstration, but we did not know what they wanted. If they had come to us peacefully, we would have spoken to them. But they started trouble. The demonstrators brought weapons and opened fire,” he said.
Up until now, the Americans had enjoyed a fairly good relationship with the area’s residents. The earlier operation to liberate Garmsir from Taleban control was done quite professionally, they say, with minimal civilian casualties.
But the demonstration appears to have damaged the image of both the foreign forces and the government, according to sociologist Dr Ramazan Herawi.
“It will be difficult for the government and the international forces to placate the angry people of Garmsir,” he told IWPR. “The government enjoyed support in Garmsir, but people are very upset about the bloodshed and are very emotional.”
The Taleban’s tactics, while crude, are effective, said Ghulam Sarwar Ghafari, a resident of Garmsir.
“When foreigners come to an area and make promises, it makes an impression,” he told IWPR. “But with the demonstration, the Taleban have [damaged] the government’s efforts to ensure security in Garmsir. They achieved their goal and showed the foreigners that [people are] against them in Garmsir.”
The Taleban also staged a public relations campaign with the local population in the wake of the shooting.
“My brother was killed during the demonstration,” said Abdullah, a resident of Darweshan. “The local Taleban expressed their condolences by coming to the hospital, but the governor’s office did not care about our sorrow at all.”
A male nurse at the Lashkar Gah hospital, who did not want to give his name, confirmed that Mullah Naim had turned up at the hospital. “[He] came to the hospital to express his condolences,” he said.
Meanwhile, Helmand provincial council head Mohammad Anwar revealed the initial findings of a government enquiry, saying that there was no question that the Taleban were behind the incident.
“We met with tribal leaders, local authorities, and religious leaders,” he said. “We asked a lot of questions, and at the end it was clear that the armed opposition planned this demonstration.”
The alleged desecration of the copy of the Koran was made up by the Taleban to inflame emotions, he added.
But the Taleban, Anwar said, found fertile ground for their agitation, “The local people are really fed up with raids [by foreign forces]. They cannot take it any more. So it is a good excuse for the opposition to create a mess.”
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR trainee reporter in Helmand.
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