Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ISAF Risks Losing Hearts and Minds in North

Kunduz residents’ anger over accidental shooting reflects hardening of attitudes towards foreign forces in relatively secure north.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
It was terrible,” recalled Mohammad Ismail of the night in early September when International Security Assistance Forces, ISAF, mistook his vehicle for that of a suicide bomber.

The 20-year-old was driving back from a wedding party on the outskirts of the north-eastern city of Kunduz.

“When I drove the car back a few metres, I saw the blood everywhere and everybody was unconscious. I had lost two of my fingers and one bullet had hit my shoulder,” he said.

The incident left three of his passengers – one woman and her two children – dead. Ismail, two other women and three children were also wounded.

The shooting is reminiscent of similar incidents elsewhere in the country, where foreign forces have mistakenly struck civilians, leaving Afghans with a growing sense of anger and resentment towards the presence of international troops in the country.

Acting on a tip-off to be on the lookout for a Corolla station wagon, German forces from the Kunduz Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, together with the Afghan National Army, ANA, and Afghan police, established a checkpoint on the main highway five kilometres east of the city.

According to police sources, at approximately 9.45 pm, a Corolla station wagon drove onto the highway from a side road.

Alerted to the ISAF presence, the station wagon turned and sped away, and the troops opened fire. The vehicle escaped, but a hail of bullets instead hit Ismail’s Corolla sedan which was behind it.

Toyota Corollas are common in Afghanistan and are frequently used by insurgents in suicide attacks.

Ismail insisted he had followed the Germans’ instructions.

“When the [ISAF troops] issued a warning with lights and the [first] car did not stop, I – as I always do – tried to stop, but... their response was to fire,” he said.

However, both German and Afghan forces say that Ismail’s car failed to stop.

Abdul Rahman Aqtash, chief of security at Kunduz police headquarters, who was not present at the scene, said, “According to our information, when the station wagon appeared, the German soldiers ordered it to stop but it escaped, and the Corolla following the station wagon, which had returned from a wedding party, did not stop either, so the Germans thought this car also belonged to the terrorists and opened fire.”

Uergen Fischer, a spokesman for the German PRT in Kunduz, told IWPR, “The security forces ordered the car to stop, but the driver [kept going] so they opened fire.”

Although Afghan forces in the region regularly conduct joint patrols with ISAF, Aqtash attributed this incident to a lack of information sharing on the part of the Germans.

“We were with them on patrol as usual, but we knew nothing about the intelligence they had received. We were searching cars when the Germans opened fire. It was [only then that] they told us they had received intelligence about a suspected car entering Kunduz city,” he said.

However, Fischer played down the accusation that there was a lack of information-sharing between the two forces.

“The joint patrols by Afghan and our forces all the time [show] better coordination,” he said.

Locals have expressed anger over the shooting, reflecting a hardening of attitudes towards foreign forces in Afghanistan’s relatively secure north.

Mohammad Alam, 63, who lives near where the failed ambush took place, said, “There was a lot of firing. We thought the Taleban had attacked. We locked our doors and did not go to the mosque the next morning fearing the Taleban.

“[The foreign forces] do not know Kunduz and its people. [Locals] have been calm so far, but if they start an insurgency as a result of the [foreigners’] behaviour, no one will be able to stop them.”

Akbar Khan, 45, a resident of Khanabad district and the brother of the deceased woman, said, “We thought they had come for our security, but now I think they have come to kill us. We cannot walk freely, [or] celebrate weddings and other parties in our country.”

Ali Mohammad, 30, a taxi driver in Kunduz, said he believed that more of what he described as provocation by foreign forces may drive local residents to support the Taleban.

“We currently see that the Taleban are very active in this province and are looking to take advantage of such situations,” he said.

Both German and Afghan forces agree that the Taleban is present in the province but deny that its influence is growing.

“We know that the Taleban exist [here], but they are not strong. We have done a lot of reconstruction work. The Taleban know that and they want to carry out acts that [undermine] the prosperity of people,” said Fischer.

Aqtash agreed that the Taleban were not a serious threat in the area.

“The Taleban are secretly active here at night. They are in one place one night in another the next, but they do not have a stable command or base. We are trying to destroy them,” he said.

However, Aqtash said that further mistakes from foreign forces would erode local support for them in the region.

“We request ISAF to coordinate with us during patrols, because a large number of people tell us that Afghans should lead the patrols,” he said.

“If the mistakes increase, so will people’s anger.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.