The Globe and Mail, April 13, 2010

Anti-American anger grows in Afghanistan

Monday’s shooting appeared to confirm those fears, with angry Afghans spilling into the streets, burning tires and chanting “Death to America.”

By Sonia Verma

Afghan police and onlookers gather around the bus that U.S. forces opened fire on in Kandahar city on Mon., April 12. Four civilians were killed in the incident. (Ahmad Nadeem/Reuters)

U.S. troops fired on a crowded passenger bus on the outskirts of Kandahar city, killing four civilians and injuring 18 others, stoking anti-American protests that promised to complicate a massive offensive against Taliban insurgents this summer.

Although the military command issued an apology, saying it “deeply regrets the tragic loss of life,” Monday’s incident cast fresh doubts on Operation Omid, billed as the pivotal offensive of the war, which will see tens of thousands of NATO troops attempt to seize control of Kandahar.

NATO officials were already struggling to win support for the offensive from ordinary Afghans and tribal elders who had expressed concern over the potential for “collateral damage.”

Monday’s shooting appeared to confirm those fears, with angry Afghans spilling into the streets, burning tires and chanting “Death to America.”

“People brought the bus to Kandahar bus station and drivers and ordinary people protested against Americans,” said a man named Naqibullah who attended the protest, which he said “showed the anger of the people against the Americans.”

The shooting occurred before dawn when a bus carrying about 50 passengers travelling west on the main highway from Kandahar city approached a military convoy on a road-clearing mission, sweeping for land mines and improvised explosive devices.

Military officials said in a statement that “an unknown, large vehicle” drove “at a high rate of speed” toward the convoy.

Troops signalled the driver to stop with flares, flashlights and hand signals before firing, according to the statement.

“Once engaged, the vehicle then stopped,” the statement read. Later, NATO forces “discovered the vehicle to be a passenger bus.”

Rozi Mohammad, a 40-year-old man from Zabul province who was injured in the shooting, suggested the darkness caused confusion.

“I was in the front seat when we were faced with the convoy. It was dark. I only saw fire from the Americans. … Many people were injured and killed. After some time helicopters landed and took us … for treatment,” he recounted in an interview at Kandahar’s Mirwais hospital where he was being treated for his wounds.

It was unclear what effect, if any, the shooting would have the timing of Operation Omid, which is set to launch in June.

On a visit to Kandahar city two weeks ago, Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed the offensive would not take place without the people’s consent.

His comments were puzzling to many observers, because tens of thousands of U.S. troops have already arrived in the region in preparation for the mission.

However, they also underscored the importance of local consent in NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy, which relies on locals to supply coalition troops with intelligence ahead of any military offensive.

Anger over civilian deaths has hobbled Western efforts to draw support away from the insurgency.

The latest United Nations report suggests militants were responsible for 55 per cent of war-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2008, the last year for which figures were available. However, 39 per cent were killed by coalition or Afghan forces.

U.S. officials have said Mr. Karzai’s support will be crucial for the offensive to be successful.

The Afghan leader condemned the shooting and offered condolences to the families of the victims.

With a report from Globe and Mail staff in Kandahar

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