Afghan Capital Calm After Deadly Riots

Security forces bring an enforced calm to Kabul a day after a deadly traffic accident involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan sparked riots. At least 11 people died as protesters looted shops and shouted "death to America!" Steve Inskeep talks to New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall in Kabul.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

This is a day for the U.S. military to keep a low profile in Kabul, Afghanistan. At the request of the Afghan government, Americans are avoiding too many appearances in public after the worst anti-American violence in years. The violence was triggered by a traffic accident. It involved a U.S. military truck that crashed into several vehicles. Five people were killed in that accident, and several more in the violence that followed.

Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan, expressed regret.

Col. TOM COLLINS (Spokesman for Coalition Forces, Afghanistan; U.S. Air Force, Retired): This was a tragic incident, and we deeply regret any deaths or injuries resulting from this incident. Compensation will be paid to those who are entitled. At this time, we are still determining the facts of what happened.

INSKEEP: This is one of two blows to the U.S. image abroad that we will examine in this part of the program. One is in Afghanistan, the other is in Iraq. And we begin with Carlotta Gall, a reporter for the New York Times based in Kabul. And, Carlotta, first off, we should mention this was a traffic accident. What is the larger image, if any, that led to so much rioting?

Ms. CARLOTTA GALL (Reporter, New York Times): Well, it was the perception of what caused the traffic accident. Very quickly, stories went around that this was a military convoy coming into the town, and the lead driver was actually intentionally ramming cars to get them out of his way. It seems even the police say it seems to have been a traffic accident. But the stories that rapidly circulated were very different, and that whipped up a lot of the anger.

INSKEEP: And when you say, whipped up anger, what is happening in Afghanistan that makes people so willing to believe that the U.S. would deliberately be putting civilians in danger, killing them?

Ms. GALL: Well, I think some of the things that have been happening at the hands of the military - one commentator I talked to yesterday immediately brought up the bombing of a village down in southern Afghanistan where a lot of civilians were killed. There's heavy fighting going on with Taliban insurgents down there. But when coalition forces bombed a Taliban area, they kill civilians as well. That resonates enormously around the country.

But there are also just natural resentment against foreign military in Afghanistan. It has a long tradition of independence and fighting any invaders. And so there is always a latent difficulty for Afghans to see foreign military driving around in their country. So I think the seeds are there, and it can take something that raises emotions like civilian death to spark some real anger.

INSKEEP: Now President Hamid Karzai went on national television where you are to call the rioters enemies of Afghanistan. Is there any evidence that the Taliban or other groups directly opposed to the United States whipped up public sentiment here?

Ms. GALL: I don't think that. But what he also mentioned was there were opportunists who used the excuse of the traffic accident to create violence. And we certainly saw looting happening. We saw some armed men who attacked officers intentionally which weren't directly involved with the traffic accident, and so on.

So I think there was some opportunism. There was a lot of criminal elements out. Whether the Taliban was involved, probably not, because they're not very strong in Kabul. They're much more active in the south and the southeast.

INSKEEP: Is this the sign of a long-term problem for the United States?

Ms. GALL: I think what it shows is there's a very, very long-term problem in Afghanistan - with a lot of unemployment, a lot of poverty, a lot of latent violence. Just after 20 years of war, people naturally turn to violence to solve disputes and so on. So there's social problems here which are going to last a very long time.

And it's a kind Afghan trait often to blame the outsider for their own problem. So I think that's why you see attacks on foreign buildings and compounds. So I think it means that for the long term, there's an awful lot of work to raise Afghanistan up to a decent standard of living and a decent way of life. But also, very long issues with the foreign presence here, and the foreign troops especially have to always be aware of that and always tread very carefully.

INSKEEP: Carlotta Gall of the New York Times in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thanks very much.

Ms. GALL: Thank you.

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