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Afghans eye future uneasily as violence grows sharply


KABUL, Afghanistan -- The apparent downing of a military helicopter with 17 Americans aboard in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday comes at a time of growing insecurity here. For the first time since the United States overthrew the Taliban government 3 1/2 years ago, Afghans say they are feeling uneasy about the future.

Violence has increased sharply in recent months, with a resurgent Taliban movement mounting daily attacks in southern Afghanistan, gangs kidnapping foreigners in the capital, and militant Islamists orchestrating violent demonstrations against the government and foreign-financed organizations.

The steady stream of violence, culminating in the crash of the helicopter, which was apparently brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade, has dealt a new blow to this still-traumatized nation of 25 million. In dozens of interviews conducted in recent weeks around the country, Afghans voiced concern that the situation was not improving, and that the Taliban and other dangerous elements were gaining strength.

They also expressed increased dissatisfaction with their own government and the way the U.S. military is conducting its operations, and said they were suspicious of the Americans' long-term intentions.

"Three years on, the people are still hoping that things are going to work out, but they have become suspicious about why the Americans came, and why the Americans are treating the local people badly," said Jandad Spinghar, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Nangarhar province in the east, just across the Khyber Pass from Pakistan.

Poverty, joblessness, frustrated expectations and the culture of 25 years of war make for a volatile mix in which American military raids, shootings and detention of Afghans can inflame public opinion, many here say.

"Generally, people are not against the Americans," Spinghar said. "But in areas where there are no human rights, where they do not have good relations and where there is bad treatment of villagers or prisoners, this will hand a free area to the Taliban. It's very important that the Americans understand how the Afghan people feel."

Reflecting the shifting popular mood, President Hamid Karzai has publicly criticized the behavior of American troops.

The Taliban's spring offensive has jolted both the U.S. military and the Karzai government, which had been saying that the Taliban were largely defeated and that Afghanistan was consolidating behind its first elected national leader.

"We were wrong," a senior government official acknowledged, saying of the Taliban, "It seems they were spending the time preparing." He insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject within the government.

While the government blames the Taliban -- and its Pakistani and al-Qaida backers -- for the violence, the American military is frequently blamed by Afghans for drawing militant Islamic fighters to the country and then failing to control them.

"The Americans are the cause of the insecurity," said Abdullah Mahmud, 26, a law student in Kabul. "If they were not here, there would not be any insecurity. The money they are spending on military expenses -- if they spent half of it on the Afghan army and police and raised their skills, then there would not be any security questions."

Opponents of the government are calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops and international aid organizations from Afghanistan, a call that has resonated with Afghans' spirit of independence. The government, though, is anxiously seeking assurances that the foreign troops will stay and that assistance will continue, supporting it through this latest wave of difficulties.

Sayed Asadullah Hashimi, an assistant professor at Kabul University's School of Islamic Law, said, "Outside Kabul, two-thirds of the people think that the Americans came only to invade and occupy Afghanistan, and that is why day by day the tension is growing. The mood is worsening."

With parliamentary elections approaching in September, the issue of the American military presence is emerging at the forefront of political debate. Foreign diplomats are forecasting that the election will deliver a parliament divided on ethnic lines and largely anti-Karzai, with a strong Islamist element.

Karzai will have to change his Cabinet, now largely made up of technocrats, to reflect the makeup of a new Parliament, said one diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the political nature of his comments.

The current instability does not add up to a national uprising. The Taliban movement remains restricted to a core of believers, supported by a larger number who are motivated by money more than anything else, Afghan and foreign officials said. But they warned that it would be dangerous to ignore the signs of unrest.

The airlift of foreign aid workers from Jalalabad after a day of rioting last month raised fears that Afghans would turn against foreigners.

Afghans interviewed this week frequently warned that if U.S. forces did not show greater care, especially in their treatment of detainees and their families, the people could turn against them.

"They should respect our culture and our religion and they will be successful," said Lal Muhammed, the senior partner of a real estate firm in the southern city of Kandahar.

His partner, Taher Shah, said the United States should not overestimate the extent of its power. "The Americans are very powerful and they can control the government," he said. "But if the people don't like them, they will have to leave."

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