ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And now to Afghanistan, where disturbing charges are coming out of the violent southern province of Kandahar. They say that Afghan troops – along with several American mentors - forced civilians to march ahead of soldiers on roads where the Taliban were believed to have planted bombs and landmines. There were no explosions, but the villagers' claims raise more troubling questions about civilians who have long been caught between insurgents and Afghan-Allied forces. NPR's Quil Lawrence went to Kandahar and brings us the story.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Panjwai district, southwest of Kandahar, was a Taliban fortress for years, until the U.S. troop surge in 2010 began to displace the insurgents. At first, the violence spiked up, as U.S. and Afghan troops brought the frontline through Panjwai and other districts outside Kandahar. Now, for the first time in several years, the 20 minute drive out to Panjwai is safe enough for regular traffic. But that doesn't mean the Taliban is gone.
FIAZAL MAHMUD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Today, the Taliban fights with roadside bombs and suicide bombers, says Fiazal Mahmud, the deputy head of Panjwai's council of elders. His constituents tell him they feel caught between the insurgents and the Afghan government forces with their American allies. Last month that went to extremes, says Mahmud.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
LAWRENCE: Mahmud opens the door to the district meeting hall in Panjwai where he says scores of villagers came to complain last month. Along with their village elders, people from the hamlets of Zangabad, Talukan and Mushan all told a similar story. They said Afghan troops, accompanied by American soldiers, pulled them out of their homes one evening in early September.
MAHMUD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Mahmud says the soldiers detained a group of villagers, lined them up and forced them to walk in front of the soldiers for over a mile, through areas believed to be mined by the Taliban. Mahmud's story was corroborated by local residents, including a truck driver from Talukan who goes by one name, Hamidullah.
HAMIDULLAH: (Through translator) They brought in people from all the villages on the sides of the main paved road. The Taliban had told us not to go through this way, because there were a lot of mines. All of the road to the next village was mined. But the soldiers told us to keep walking in front of them
LAWRENCE: Other local residents reached by phone told the same story. Ahmad, a 22-year-old man from Zangabad village said he was also forced to walk through what he believed to be a mined road.
AHMAD: (Through translator) They kept telling us to show the mines. We said we did not know where the Taliban planted mines. Then they told us to move forward to the next village. On the way, if anything happens, you're responsible for the consequences. We kept praying, oh god, save us.
LAWRENCE: No one was hurt, but if true, the act would constitute a war crime according to the Geneva conventions. The general in charge of Afghan troops in Panjwai vehemently denied any such incident took place. Panjwai's district governor also denied it. Colonel Daniel J.W. King, a spokesman for the NATO's joint command in Afghanistan, said an investigation is underway.
COLONEL DANIEL J.W. KING: We take all allegations of human rights violations very seriously. At this time, there is no credible information or evidence to substantiate these claims. It is our top priority to continue to assess the situation. And if any information or evidence does come to light, we'll take the appropriate legal actions.
LAWRENCE: Colonel King said he could not answer further questions about what is now an ongoing investigation.
Reporting in Panjwai is still dangerous, which limits the possibility of confirming exactly what took place in the villages and how closely involved international forces may have been.
Multiple sources have confirmed, however, that on the 18th and 19th of September, a large number of elders from the community did meet at the Panjwai district center, where Afghan and American officials apologized to them for the incident and promised it wouldn't happen again, according to the deputy head of the elder's council, Fiazal Mahmud. His boss, the district governor, and the Afghan general in charge, deny any such meeting took place. But Fiazal Mahmud described it in detail.
MAHMUD: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: When we brought the issue to them, they said they had told their troops never to do it again, says Mahmud. He said there have been no more similar incidents reported.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.