August 26, 2013

Bombarded Afghan village seen as symbolic

After it was leveled to drive out the Taliban, the village of Tarok Kolache exemplifies the war's gains and losses.

By KEVIN SIEFF The Washington Post

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click image to enlarge

Niaz Mohammad stands on the land that was covered by Tarok Kolache’s houses before Americans bombed the village in 2010. Less than half of the village was rebuilt after the bombardment.

Washington Post photo by Kevin Sieff

The bombing didn't kill any civilians, but it stood out for the scale of its destruction. Before and after satellite pictures released in the aftermath of the attack show a cluster of houses that seemed to vanish into the desert. Crops on nearby land were destroyed.

U.S. officials were quick to call the operation a success. Afghan members of the U.S.-backed government said it was tragic but necessary. Both groups pointed to the proof: The Taliban left Tarok Kolache.

"The other option was to keep patting the ground by hand, looking for IEDs," Flynn said. "After losing several guys, we found it wasn't worth the risk."

Flynn watched as the airstrike was carried out, knowing it would weaken the enemy but infuriate many locals. He thinks his decision, supported by top American commanders, was the right one.

"Leadership isn't about being the most popular guy on the street," he said. "It's about getting the job done and improving a bad environment."


There were objections not only from Afghan civilians but also from American academics and analysts, who said it was an example of the unnecessary use of force. For some outside the military, Tarok Kolache became a symbol of the Afghan war's poor execution.

Mohammad learned about the American debate over Tarok Kolache months after it began raging on blogs and op-ed pages. He asked an English-speaking friend in Kandahar city to search the name of his village on Google. He couldn't believe what he saw -- a seemingly endless back-and-forth about whether Tarok Kolache's destruction was justified.

"It was amazing -- I didn't know we were famous in Tarok Kolache," he said.

U.S. officials said they tried to be systematic about compensating villagers, either rebuilding their homes or paying them to construct new ones elsewhere. But it wasn't always easy or successful.

"We ran into our own bureaucracy," Flynn said.

The U.S. military had a policy of compensating all individuals equally, even though some villagers owned many homes in the village and others had only one.

Fourteen of the homes in Tarok Kolache, for instance, were owned by one man, Abdul Hamid. The U.S. military offered to rebuild one of his structures. He objected, but to little effect. Eventually he decided to leave Tarok Kolache, moving into a small home in Kandahar city, where many former residents of dangerous districts have relocated.

The Afghan government, for its part, hasn't ignored the village, but redevelopment efforts have been uneven. Authorities built a new mosque to replace the one that was destroyed, but they did not replace the village's school, which survived the airstrike only to be taken over by an Afghan army outpost. There are now more than a dozen children living in Tarok Kolache who have nowhere to study.


Some Afghan proponents of the bombing now wonder what the operation's long-term impact will be.

"We're worried about factional tension. We fear that with the foreign troops' departure, the locals will go at each other's throats," said Shah Mohammad, the governor of Kandahar province's Arghandab's district, referring to tensions between supporters and critics of the government.

Others worry that the residents of Tarok Kolache, who were once neutral in the war, have come to sympathize with the Taliban.

"After the bombing, they've become pro-Talib. They're the strongest Taliban supporters in Arghandab," said Naiz Mohammad, the district police chief.


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