KANDAHAR, Afghanistan >> An Afghan presidential commission has determined that military operations in the Kandahar area have caused more than $100 million in damage to homes and farms over the past six months, its chairman said in an interview yesterday.
Those findings, reported by the chairman, Mohammad Sediq Aziz, were disputed at a news conference here yesterday that included the provincial and district governors for the areas where most of the damage occurred.
The American military commander in the area, Maj. Gen. James Terry, estimated the damage at only $1.4 million and said officials were rapidly processing and paying claims for compensation.
The issue is a sensitive one because rapid recompense for damage caused by the fighting is an important part of the American counterinsurgency strategy, which holds that winning the support of local populations is more important than chasing away insurgents.
While both sides agreed that the destruction was unavoidable, their estimates of the costs were far apart. The commission studied the impact over the past nine months of Operation Omid, which means “hope” in the Dari language, in which coalition forces took aim at Taliban concentrations in Kandahar city and the three districts west of the city.
Commission officials, for instance, put the number of homes deliberately destroyed by coalition troops as high as 900. Terry said only 81 residential houses had been destroyed.
Both sides agreed that the destruction was necessary to break the Taliban hold on those important districts west of Kandahar city, which have been insurgent strongholds as far back as the Soviet occupation. The clearing operations there “have been productive and pushed the insurgents from territories they held, with no civilian casualties, but brought heavy destruction to homes and orchards to the heavy infestation of land mines in gardens, houses and main roads,” said Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province.
The six-member investigating commission appointed by President Hamid Karzai included Afghan Army and police officials. The commission chairman, Aziz, is the president’s adviser on tribal affairs. “Our investigations showed that from 800 to 900 houses were destroyed besides crops and fields and more than 100,000 fertile and nonfertile trees in three districts,” Aziz said.
Aziz said the commission would formally present its results to Karzai on Sunday. “I do not agree with the commission’s estimates of damage and destruction; $100 million is too much,” Wesa said.
The governor of Zhare District, where the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was born, agreed, and said villagers had been pleased with the compensation process. He estimated that 500 houses had been destroyed in Zhare alone, but that 389 claimants had already been compensated.
The payments are made by American troops after Afghan officials confirm the claimant’s ownership and the damages.
The commission members insisted that their estimates were reasonable. “We toured street by street and house by house,” said one commission member, Sayid Ahmad Hamdard. “We saw every single bit of destruction with our own eyes and counted it, not alone but accompanied by district governors and local shura members, police, army and intelligence.”
Asked about the discrepancy in damage estimates, Aziz said his commission may have included not only damage caused by American troops, but also that caused by the Afghan police and army. “We are not blaming anyone for this; it was a war, and the damage came from a war,” he said. Aziz also said the commission was not demanding that the Americans actually pay compensation of more than $100 million. “It may be enough if they make a donation of 10 or 20 percent of that,” he said.
The Taliban have sought to make the destruction in districts they formerly controlled a propaganda issue. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, distributed via e-mail some video footage that he said showed U.S. soldiers destroying trees and houses in the Kandahar area. There was no way to verify the authenticity of the footage.
“This is the American democracy, reconstruction, nation-building, winning hearts and minds which they claim they are doing in Afghanistan,” Mujahid wrote in his e-mail.
Referring to improvised explosive devices, Terry said: “It is the insurgents who are jeopardizing the people and security forces when they use your buildings and farms to place IEDs and bombs. Further, the homes that were destroyed were abandoned, empty and wired with ingenious arrays of bombs. When the insurgents do this they threaten local civilians, particularly the children.”