Special to American Forces Press Service
June 26, 2009 - Insurgents operating in eastern Afghanistan increasingly are focusing their attacks away from coalition forces and on local residents, military officials here said. The rate of civilians killed by improvised explosive devices in eastern Afghanistan has risen 117 percent in the last year, while coalition forces deaths from IEDs have decreased by 70 percent, they said.
Army Col. Michael Howard, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), which controls the battle space of Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces, explained that anyone who possesses the courage to speak out against the Taliban becomes a target.
Contractors who work with the coalition, Afghan government officials, police, Afghan troops, moderate mullahs, elders and innocent civilians who support their government are all receiving threats and becoming targets, he said.
According to Howard, the insurgents emplace command wire IEDs to attempt to maim or kill selected residents, but through the use of pressure-plate IEDs, they devastate the first innocent person to drive down the road.
"They are targeting civilians," he said. "IEDs that go off with a command wire are not an accident. Someone pulled a trigger.
"They also are using force in an indiscriminate and irresponsible way," he continued. "When they put a pressure-plate IED in the road, when there is 10 times more civilian traffic than military traffic, it puts all civilians at risk. This happens all the time."
Naimatullah Haqmal, a Khost City resident and doctor at the Salerno Hospital, said there has been such an increase in civilian attacks that he is relocating his family to a safer area in Afghanistan, as many other residents are doing.
"The enemy targets civilian people now," Haqmal said. "They kill all those people who have knowledge, who are educated. They want to hold the people in the dark. They think if the people have knowledge, they will terminate the fighting. Anyone that has sympathy with the government, they will kill."
The rise in civilian attacks is alarming, but more detrimental is the effect the attacks have on their livelihood.
"When civilians here get injured, it is much more devastating. Things that are not fatal in the U.S. are fatal here," said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Scott Russi, the trauma chief and lead general surgeon at the Salerno Hospital. "A local national with a 50 percent body surface burn is fatal, where in the U.S. they have an 80-plus percent survival rate.
"Even if they survive here, they become a burden to their family and the majority do not return to functional lives."
Nazifullah Karimi, from Khost province, said Afghans are angry, and that everyone has been affected by the attacks. At least one member of each extended family has been targeted, threatened or intimidated by the insurgents, he said.
"They don't march in the streets, but that doesn't mean that they are not furious," Howard concurred. "There is such intimidation from the Taliban that they cannot vocalize how disgusted they are. The Afghans that we work with, that we become friends with, tell us there is outrage."
A resident of the Mandozai district of Gharanai told of his brother, a journalist at a radio station in Khost City, who was targeted by insurgents and killed with an IED.
"We are all being affected by the [insurgent] activities, as I lost my brother. I do not know why they must kill my brother. The IEDs kill or injure too many innocent people," he said.
Every Afghan here has a story to tell, just like Gharanai's, said Karimi, and through vehicle-borne IEDs, many people share the same story from a single event.
This spring, two separate vehicle explosions killed 14 Afghans and seriously injured 61.
The attacks create intense fear that runs rampant through the villages. Residents who cannot send their families to a safer place have taken refuge in their own houses, keeping their children home from school and travelling as little as possible, said Rasool Habibi, a local surgeon and scholar who works at the Salerno Hospital and teaches at Khost University.
"It doesn't matter who -- children, teachers, doctors -- they kill everyone. Everybody is scared," Habibi said. "I see my family once a week because from here to there, there is no security, and there is great possibility of assassination."
The terror that has become prominent in the daily lives of Afghans has evolved into revulsion, as well as a foundation in an adamant quest for answers, and solutions.
"This is an insurgency, so it's a very weak military organization that has decided to take on a very strong military organization," Howard said. "They can't do that going nose to nose, so they have to use insurgent tactics. One tactic is intimidation.
"We hope to show the population that the Afghanistan government is the way of the future: they will provide security, they will provide elected leadership, they will provide roads, hospitals and education," he said. "The Taliban can't do any of that, so they have to control the population in another way: through intimidation."
While the insurgents attempt to send a message of intimidation, Howard illustrated how their ultimate motive goes beyond that message.
"An insurgent beats a counterinsurgent by fighting the war to a stalemate. They make it last 15 years," he explained. "That's the insurgent's strategy. They want to take over Afghanistan, and they want to take over by making us quit. I don't think they are just making a statement, they actually want political power."
The Afghanistan National Security Forces are determined to protect their country from the insurgents rising to power. They work diligently to inform the population of preventive measures, as well as providing avenues to report enemy activity anonymously, military officials said.
"The governor responded immediately to an attack this morning," Howard said. "He condemned it, he sent medical care to the wounded, and he sent his soldiers to chase after the bad guys. They got them."
Afghan and coalition forces encourage the locals to evaluate the activities of both the insurgents and their government, to arrive at an educated conclusion in order to gather the courage to unite and defend their families, communities and country.
"Look around and see," Howard said. "Every time there is a fight between your army and the Taliban, who wins and who loses? How many schools and roads and mosques have been built by the army, and then compare that to the Taliban. Look at your government: is it progressing, is it getting bigger, is it getting stronger? Are resources flowing from it? Are they providing some basic services like health care and education? Then look at the Taliban, and see how much of that they are doing.
"You will see that one side has done a lot of good, and one has done a lot of evil," he said. "You will see an imbalance. Look, and then decide for yourselves how many of these things came from the government and how many came from the Taliban."
More and more villages are banding together and taking a stand, turning the insurgents' intimidation into newfound strength and determination.
"The [insurgents] try to control our country. They want to impose their will on us. They want us to live under their harsh rules, but we do not want that to happen," Gharanai said. "Our village will be safe, because we are uniting."
(Army Pfc. Andrya Hill serves with the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)