By Ahmad Kawoosh
2009-10-31 12:00 AM
A soldier with the 209th Shahin Corps of the Afghan National Army, which has been battling insurgents in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, insists he's witnessed it with his own eyes.
"Just when the police and army managed to surround the Taliban in a village of Qala-e-Zaal district, we saw helicopters land with support teams," said the soldier who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak to the press. "They managed to rescue their friends from our encirclement, and even to inflict defeat on the Afghan National Army."
This story, in one form or another, is being repeated throughout northern Afghanistan. People claim to have seen Taliban fighters disembark from foreign helicopters in several provinces.
"Our fight against the Taliban is nonsense," said the soldier from Shahin Corps. "Our foreigner 'friends' are friendlier to the opposition."
For years, there have been widespread rumors that the Taliban are being indirectly financed or even directly supported by foreign military forces.
Such rumors gain credence in part because many Afghans can't believe that a ragtag group of insurgents have been able to outmaneuver the world's sole remaining superpower for more than eight years.
And in a country where foreign intrigue has existed for centuries, such suspicions appear perfectly normal.
In this case, the belief is that foreign forces are ferrying Taliban fighters from the volatile south to what had been a more peaceful north so that coalition forces will have an excuse to expand their reach all across the country.
Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave an unexpected boost to such rumors earlier this month when he announced that he was investigating reports that "unknown" helicopters were ferrying the insurgents from Helmand province in the south to Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan provinces in the north.
The rumors have become so pervasive that top military commanders have felt compelled to issue public denials, a tactic that often only fuel public suspicion.
"This entire business with the helicopters is just a rumor," said Brig. Gen. Juergen Setzer, who was recently appointed commander of the International Security Assistance Force. "It has no basis in reality, according to our investigations." Capt. Tim Dark, of Britain's Task Force Helmand, was even more emphatic.
"The thought that British soldiers could be aiding and abetting the enemy is just rubbish," he said. "We have had 85 casualties so far this year."
Engineer Mohammad Omar, governor of Kunduz province, refused to comment on the issue. But Enayatullah Enayat, governor of Samangan, also denied that the helicopters were moving the opposition around in Samangan.
"I am in contact with both national and foreign forces in Samangan," he said. "I have not seen any suspicious helicopters bringing in the Taliban." Still, local villagers insist they have seen Taliban fighters disembarking from helicopters with their own eyes.
In the Baghlan-e-Markazi district of Baghlan province, residents witnessed a battle last month in which they insisted that two foreign helicopters had delivered the Taliban fighters who then attacked their district center.
"I saw the helicopters with my own eyes," said Sayed Rafiq from Baghlan-e-Markazi.
"They landed near the foothills and offloaded dozens of Taliban with turbans, and wrapped in patus (a blanket-type shawl)."
According to numerous media reports, the Taliban attacked the district center.
The district police chief, the head of counter-narcotics unit and a number of soldiers, were killed in the attack.
Amir Gul, the district governor of Baghlan-e-Markazi, insisted that the Taliban fighters had been delivered by helicopter.
"I do not know to which country the helicopters belonged," he said. "But these are the same helicopters that are taking the Taliban from Helmand to Kandahar and from there to the north, especially to Baghlan."
Baghlan police chief Mohammad Kabir Andarabi said that his department had reported to the central government that foreign helicopters were transporting the Taliban into Baghlan.
The Baghlan provincial governor, Mohammad Akbar Barikzai, told a news conference on Oct. 21 that his intelligence and security services had discovered that unidentified helicopters were landing at night in some parts of the province. "We are investigating," he said.
In the end, the results of such an investigation may not matter. The fact that many Afghanis are ready to believe that coalition forces are somehow in collusion with Taliban fighters to keep the country destabilized indicates a deep level of distrust of Western involvement that will be difficult to overcome.
Ahmad Kawoosh is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.; Web site: www.iwpr.net.