Winning Hearts While Flattening Vineyards Is Rather Tricky
PANJWAI, Afghanistan — No one disputes that the campaign by NATO and Afghan forces that wrested this southern district from Taliban control last fall caused tremendous damage. The evidence is all around. In one place a whole village was destroyed. (See before and after picture here-PR)
The question now is whether NATO troops can win over local people as they compensate them for damage and build new roads, which they hope will bring greater security and prosperity but which are tearing up still more property. Every day Canadian troops deploy tanks and bulldozers during construction. Fruit trees have been felled, vines uprooted, and fields and barns flattened…
…Some of the damage has been extensive, such as in the village of Taroko Kalacha, in Arghandab district, which was so heavily mined by the Taliban that American forces resorted to aerial bombardment and leveled the whole village of 36 homes. The guidelines reissued by the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, permitted such a step, one NATO official said.
The neighboring village of Khosrow fared better. About 10 compounds and orchards were damaged, but after villagers saw the destruction of Taroko Kalacha, they hired a former mujahedeen fighter to defuse the Taliban mines and so saved their houses from destruction, said one of the village elders, Hajji Abdul Qayum.
Afghan views of the destruction are mixed. To Afghans, the land represents not only their livelihood — some are subsistence farmers — but also their family honor.
“To lose land, or sell your land, is shameful,” said Abdul Nafi, a smallholder who lost his two acres of vines and almond trees to the road being built in Zangabad. “This will be remembered by everyone; even my children will remember that it was this government that destroyed our land,” he said. Other farmers complained that the road had destroyed the irrigation systems and left acres of vineyards without water.
Some farmers complain that they have not only lost this year’s crops, but have also seen their only source of livelihood taken away. The Taliban have been in touch with them already, promising to blow up the road and return their land to them, one farmer said.
Many are philosophical in the face of foreign military might. One man, whose house and vineyard in Zhare were destroyed when American troops fired mine-clearance weapons into them, complained that he could have found people to defuse the I.E.D.’s, or improvised explosive devices.
“It is possible to defuse them, they are not so sophisticated, but the Americans could not be bothered,” he said. “But personally, if I lose all my vines but they eliminate the Taliban from that place, I will be happy,” he said, not wanting to be named for fear of Taliban retribution.
Yet when the destruction seems avoidable — as when troops take land for their own bases or for roads — the anger boils over. Many Afghans want the roads improved but resent the unilateral decision to divert the road through prime agricultural land for security reasons.
In Zangabad, where Canadian troops are building the road, one man, Bor Muhammad, lay down in front of bulldozers in an effort to save his farm, villagers said. Although paid $6,000 in compensation, he is still vowing to wrest his land back, they said.
Mr. Nafi, 50, and his cousin Abdul Hakim, 45, two smallholders from the area, said they had no warning that the road was going to cut through their land. When Mr. Nafi got through the security cordon to his farm, he found it already flattened. “I could not believe it was my farm; I only saw destruction and demolition of walls, trees and buildings,” he said.
He owns less than two acres of vineyards, yet it was enough to feed his family of 13. The road clearance has left him with just 150 vines on either side. “A family cannot live on 150 vines,” he said bitterly. “The people are angry,” he warned. “The foreigners should not upset the people, otherwise they would go and join the Taliban.”
Maj. Eric Landry, the Canadian combat engineer tasked with building the road, said he had been painstaking in consulting with farmers and landowners all along the road, and was surprised that some people had had no notice of the destruction. Yet he has stopped clearing wide berths of 25 yards on either side of the road for security, conceding that the destruction was angering farmers.
In 2007, Canadian troops could not secure the road between their outposts and so lost control of the area, he said. “It is important to get this built before the next fighting season to protect the population,” he said.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.