KABUL/WASHINGTON – The commander of U.S.-NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. James Terry, asserted last month that the homes systematically destroyed by U.S. forces across three districts of Kandahar province as part of Operation Dragon Strike in October and November "were abandoned, empty and wired with ingenious arrays of bombs".
But in interviews with IPS at the site of the destroyed village of Tarok Kalache, now nothing more than a dusty plain surrounded by orchards, former residents disputed that account of the circumstances surrounding the destruction of their village.
The residents said that they don’t believe most of their homes had been booby-trapped by the Taliban and that, even after they had evacuated their homes, farmers from the village had continued to tend their properties in and around the village right up to the time the destruction began.
Beginning on Oct. 6, Tarok Kalache was subjected to bombing by planes and long-range rockets that spread cluster bombs throughout the village, according to Paula Broadwell. Her account of the destruction of the village, based on U.S. military sources, was published in military writer Thomas Ricks’s blog and on her own Facebook page in January.
Broadwell, who is working on a biography of Gen. David Petraeus, wrote that the village was also razed with Mine Clearing Line Charges, which destroys everything in a 600- meter-long stretch wide enough for a tank.
Residents told IPS the village was then bulldozed, because the bombing had created huge craters which had to be filled in and leveled off. They said the operation was carried out over an entire month.
Based on briefings from US military sources, Broadwell claimed on her Facebook page in mid-January that the villagers had not really been displaced by the U.S. offensive, because the Taliban had "paid the village Malik [village chief] around June-July to move out of the village", and the villagers had followed, having "made the judgment call to ‘sell’ the village to the Taliban…."
But residents of Tarok Kalache told IPS that they had begun leaving their homes when the Taliban began gearing up for a battle with U.S. troops over the village, and that the Taliban had allowed residents to return to check on their houses, and to tend their gardens and orchards in and around the village until the U.S. attack began.
Haji-Dawoud Shah, a Tarok Kalache resident whose house was destroyed by U.S. troops along with the rest of the 36 houses in the village, said in an interview that he and others had begun to leave only last August, when the Taliban began planting IEDs and preparing for battle. "We realized that one day our children and women would be killed either by IEDs or fighting," he said.
But he said residents had returned frequently to the village from Kandahar a few kilometers away to take care of their houses and orchards, and had "left our farmers in the village to take care of the gardens".
Another resident of the village, Nik Muhammad, 40, agreed that local people had been able to move in and around the village even after they had left their houses, because the Taliban had opened certain routes for the locals to use safely so they could maintain their gardens and orchards.
Muhammad said the Taliban let farmers and other people looking after their properties use certain footpaths that were normally seeded with IEDs during the hours of 9 am to 4 pm.
He explained the Taliban ability to turn IEDs on and off as involving removing and replacing batteries in the IEDS buried in the ground. After 4 pm, he said, they put the batteries back in the IEDS so they were ready for detonation.
Haji-Abdul Qayoum, 52, from the nearby village of Khisrow Ulla, confirmed that Taliban arrangement with local farmers. When the Taliban anticipated a patrol by U.S. troops during those hours, they told people to evacuate the area, warning that the IEDs were going to be turned on again, according to Qayoum. In some cases people who didn’t get the message were injured by IEDs in the area, he said.
Specialists on IEDs at the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) at the U.S. Department of Defense have never heard of battery-operated IEDs being used in Afghanistan, according to JIEDDO spokesperson Irene Smith. But in an e- mail to IPS, Smith said the Taliban do use both radio- controlled and command-wired IEDs, either of which would have allowed them to activate and deactivate IEDS buried in certain pathways.
One resident of Tarok Kalache, Dad Gul, 60, told IPS he was taken back to the pulverized village by ANA and U.S. soldiers 10 days after the end of the U.S. operation. The soldiers told him there had been an IED in his house, and when they got to site of his former home, the Americans pointed to an object lying on the ground and said, "This is the bomb."
"Actually it was my pressure cooker," said Gul. "I grabbed it and told them, ‘This is mine! This is not a bomb!’ "
Gul said some of the houses might have had IEDs in them, "but not like Americans say."
One of the ANA soldiers who had been listening to an interview with three residents of the village commented, "The Taliban planted IEDs inside houses, so the Americans destroyed them, but people said IEDs were not planted in all of the houses that were bombed."
Although 250 laborers from the villages are now employed on Us cash for work projects, no reconstruction has begun on any of the 36 houses that had stood the village, although work has started on rebuilding the village mosque.
Hajji Abdul Hamid, a village elder from Tarok Kalache, told IPS he has been offered money to rebuild five of the 14 houses he owned in the village, and that the land for the other nine is to be used for a U.S. Forward Operating Base in the village, for which he will be paid rent.
Hamid said he is "happy with this deal, if they keep their promise". But he added, "There is no confidence or trust between us yet, and we doubt whether America will deliver on their promises."
Even if the Americans keep their promises, the compensation will be less than 50 percent of losses in Tarok Kalache, Hamid said. But he indicated that so far, only one percent of the villagers’ losses have been compensated. He expects complaints by villagers to continue for a long time.
"It will take time for people to trust the Americans and to report the activities of the insurgents in the area," the village elder said.
Another elder from Tarok Kalache, Hajji Shah Wali, said, "We can’t get very close to the Americans," because the Americans still suspect that the villagers are Taliban sympathizers.
The question on the minds of these villagers is whether the Taliban will return in the spring. "If they show up, we won’t feel secure, and people will be reluctant to help the Americans," Wali said.
Nik Muhammad said he is concerned that the U.S. will help reconstruct the houses in Tarok Kalache only if the villagers agree to help them fight the Taliban.
"We will help the Americans, but we can’t take up guns against the Taliban," he said. "If the Americans and the Afghan government force local people to take up guns against the Taliban, I don’t think people will accept this."
*Shah Noori reported from Kandahar.
(Inter Press Service)