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Unrest in Afghan Capital a Bad Omen

The outburst of street violence in Kabul has some Afghans wondering if the tenuous peace will hold.
By IWPR staff
As Kabul residents began repairing their damaged city, theories already abounded about who might have been behind the riots of May 29.

There were many unanswered questions, too. Why were the police unable to assert control? Where had the president been during the disturbances? And most troubling of all, could it happen again?

The day of rioting represented the worst violence the Afghan capital had seen since the fall of the Taleban almost five years ago. Exact figures of those killed and injured are not yet available, but Abdullah Fahim, an advisor to the health ministry, said casualties ran well over the 100 mark.

“We announced last night that eight people were killed and 109 injured,” he said. “But since then, some of the injured have died. A young relative of mine who was shot died this morning.”

Fahim said the health ministry was not planning to release any updates on fatalities, so as not to inflame the population further.

The interior ministry said that 140 people were arrested during the riots, mostly while they were involved in arson.

President Hamed Karzai promised his countrymen that a full investigation would be conducted and the perpetrators brought to justice.

The American embassy issued a statement regretting the loss of life and promising that those who suffered in the traffic accident which sparked the subsequent rioting would receive the compensation due to them.

But even as casualty lists were still being compiled, officials and observers were looking more closely at the deeper roots of the disturbances.

While most Kabul residents acknowledge that their lives have improved since the fundamentalist regime was toppled by an American-led bombing campaign in 2001, they are frustrated at what they see as the excruciatingly slow pace of change.

Afghans are also growing increasingly restive at the foreign “occupation”, which many see as a threat to their national culture and way of life.

The incident that caused the explosion of violence - a collision between a Coalition military truck and up to 12 Afghan passenger vehicles - was not an isolated case.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Kabul residents were so reluctant to accept the official US explanation of mechanical failure is that traffic accidents involving foreign troops are so common. Nearly every driver has tales to tell of cases where foreign military vehicles have been driven without regard for life or property.

Taxi driver Zalmai Khan, 29, had a collision with a Coalition vehicle about one month ago. He said he was dropping off some passengers when the vehicle sideswiped him. It then sped off, leaving him with a repair bill of 400 US dollars for the damage and a permanent sense of bitterness towards the foreigners.

“If American oppression of ordinary people continues this way, we will all have to join the Taleban again to get rid of them,” he said.

Noor Agha, 43, had his car tail-ended by a vehicle belonging to the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led peacekeepers who are a separate force from the Coalition. When he reported the accident to local traffic police, they advised him to repair his car himself rather than get into a dispute with the foreign military.

“I swear to God, if I’d had a gun at the time, I wouldn’t have left a single one of those Americans alive,” he said.

Observers agree that the behaviour of the foreign troops had a lot to do with the violence.

“I have personally witnessed these things over the past year,” said Abdul Razaq Momun, political analyst and news editor for Afghanistan’s popular Tolo TV. “Coalition Forces and ISAF go wherever they want, they display their power, break the law, and hit people. That is very bad for Afghans’ sense of honour. People may not show their reaction immediately; it may be six months, a year, or three years, but they will definitely react.”

As onerous as the foreign presence is for a nation that prides itself on its independence, many have accepted that it is the price that must paid to achieve progress and security. But with these precious aims appearing to slip through their fingers, people feel cheated.

“Yesterday’s incident started with a traffic accident, that’s true,” said Momun. “But it opened the door for people to show their resentment towards the government. Many people are unemployed, many have been sacked from the government or have gone through the disarmament process.

“The government has not been able to bring changes to people’s lives over the past four years, and this has sparked popular anger.”

Another contributing factor during the riots was the police’s apparent inability to stem the violence. Some put this down to incompetence, others to sympathy with the demonstrators. But few had any words of praise for the law enforcement agency in the face of the violence.

“The police are not to be trusted,” said Momun. “They are not well trained and they don’t have proper equipment. They just have guns. When they face a crisis, all they can do is fire on the crowd or run away.”

Sayed Eshaq Gailani, parliamentarian and head of the Afghan National Solidarity Party, was similarly unimpressed by the police’s performance.

“Just half a kilometre away from the interior ministry, people’s houses were destroyed and the police did nothing,” he said. “Our police are not trained, they cannot do anything. They are not able to control even Kabul.”

In the evening, when the rioting was over, an IWPR reporter talked to a policeman relaxing in the evening with a group of friends in the street in the Khairkhana neighbourhood.

“I was there when the demonstrators came towards me,” he told said. “I thought, ‘Am I crazy? I’m not going to fire on my relatives!’ So I took off my uniform and joined them.”

Karim Rahimi, spokesman for the presidential administration, said that an investigation would be launched into the police’s behaviour.

“The government is trying to assess, together with the security forces, why they were not able to control the situation,” he told a press conference in Kabul early on May 30.

But a press officer for the interior ministry, Daad Mohammad Rasa, denied that the police had performed poorly.

“It was the police who went out to the demonstrations and calmed people down,” he said.

The Afghan army was not even in the picture, added Rasa. They were mostly stationed outside the city, while inside Kabul, they were deployed at the presidential palace and the main Coalition compound, he added.

Some observers insist that the crowds of rampaging youths were not a spontaneous outburst of public anger, but a carefully orchestrated political action by forces hostile to the current government.

Jamiat-e-Islami, the political faction to which many prominent parliamentarians belong, was singled out by several analysts as the likely culprit. As evidence, they cited the fact that many demonstrators were carrying large posters of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahedin commander who has been elevated into an official national hero for his role in fighting the Soviets and later the Taleban. Massoud belonged to and in many ways symbolised Jamiat.

“The demonstrations were led by Jamiat-e-Islami,” said political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria. “I was in the midst of the demonstrations for four hours, and I saw people from Jamiat there. Initially, they received a lot of support, but people later left them when they realised what they were up to. Jamiat had small groups in all parts of Kabul, and they were burning shops, hotels and NGOs [non-government organisations].

“They took advantage of the traffic accident to display their power both to the government and to the Coalition Forces.”

Abdulrahman Nesar, political head of Gailani’s Afghan National Solidarity Party, agreed that political factions had a hand in the violence, but he would not say exactly which parties he felt were to blame.

“The demonstrators carried slogans and posters,” he said. “This indicates that someone was behind it – certain parties that are against the government.”

But Jamiat officials vehemently denied the accusations.

“That is a complete lie,” said Abdul Shukur Waqef Hakimi, the head of cultural affairs for Jamiat-e-Islami. “Anyone with an ounce of sense can see that the demonstration was about public anger. Jamiat is against what happened yesterday, and wants the people responsible brought to justice. There was no involvement of Jamiat.”

As for the ubiquitous Massoud posters, Hakimi dismissed the idea that this implicated his party.

“Massoud does not belong only to Jamiat,” he said. “This does not mean Jamiat was leading the demonstrations.”

But whether or not the unrest was politically driven, it does not bode well for the future, said Oria.

“This was a big challenge to the government and the Coalition,” said Oria. “Where were the security agencies? They were unable to control the situation. They did nothing.

“That means the Americans are sitting on a bomb. And the bomb could explode at any moment.”

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