Differences cause friction among Afghans, Americans

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

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-Qaida 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, a guard at the Uruzgan provincial governor's residence.

If frictions continue, that could make the job of hunting al-Qaida and Taliban more difficult because U.S. troops rely heavily on Afghans for information and help.

Discontent over the U.S. presence also could undermine support for the government of President Hamid Karzai because it is closely identified in the public mind 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 eight Afghan women aboard a bus that was stopped at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Tarin Kot.

The governor, Jan Mohammed Khan, stepped in to demand 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 burqas. Our women are not al-Qaida."

At Bagram air base, headquarters of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a military spokesman, Col. Roger King, said American troops "as a rule" don't search women unless a female U.S. soldier is present to do 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 often seen as affronts.

Mohammed and a dozen of his fellow guards say they were insulted when U.S. soldiers stationed behind high walls 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 alongside Americans against the Taliban.

But the war is won, he says, and the Americans should leave his region. "There are no al-Qaida or big Taliban in our province anymore," he said.

"Our security is good and we are in control."

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