PANJWAI, Afghanistan » No one disputes that the campaign by NATO and Afghan forces that wrested this southern district from Taliban control last fall caused tremendous damage. The evidence is all around. In one place an entire village was destroyed.
The question now is whether NATO troops can win over local people as they compensate them for damage and build roads, which they hope will bring greater security and prosperity but which are tearing up still more property. Every day Canadian troops deploy tanks and bulldozers during construction. Fruit trees have been felled, vines uprooted and fields and barns flattened.
Addressing the complaints is critical to wooing people away from the Taliban for the long term. But as so often in Afghanistan, coalition forces have tripped up on the complexities of Afghan society, angering people by making decisions without consultation and meddling in one of the most intractable issues in Afghanistan: land ownership.
In the neighboring district of Zhare, U.S. troops who cleared the area of Taliban fighters found that the compensation payments went smoothly at first. Troops filled out a form on the spot. The farmer took it to headquarters, where he was compensated relatively quickly, assuaging local anger.
But as word spread, military units found themselves overwhelmed with hundreds of people claiming compensation for damage, some of it done long before the recent fighting.
"We are victims of our own success," Lt. Col. Tom McFadyen, commander of a squadron of the 101st Airborne Division in Zhare District, said ruefully.
One of his commanders complained that he had had five people claiming compensation for the same piece of property, such are the complexities of land ownership here. People have even been coming from outside the area to claim compensation for nonexistent property, said the district chief, Hajji Niaz Muhammad Sarhadi.
Unable to evaluate the claims, or to work out who the real owners of the land are, the military has pushed the onus of settling the claims onto Afghan district officials.
Yet while Afghan officials may be better placed to work out which claims are genuine, members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission have raised concerns that the local Afghan government lacks the ability and honesty to handle the huge number of claims fairly.
The scale of the problem was revealed when a presidential adviser estimated the damage from the fighting in the districts around Kandahar to be $100 million, a figure that was seconded by a delegation from the senate.
District and provincial officials put the cost at far less, $20 million to $30 million, according to one, but others accuse them of just accepting the coalition’s figures. The U.S. military has not made any survey, but it has paid out between $2 million and $3 million in compensation in four months.
Some of the damage has been extensive, such as in the village of Taroko Kalacha, in Arghandab District, which was so heavily mined by the Taliban that U.S. forces resorted to aerial bombardment and leveled the entire village of 36 homes. The guidelines reissued by the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, permitted such a step, one NATO official said.
The neighboring village of Khosrow fared better. About 10 compounds and orchards were damaged, but after villagers saw the destruction of Taroko Kalacha, they hired a former mujahedeen fighter to defuse the Taliban mines and so saved their houses from destruction, said one of the village elders, Hajji Abdul Qayum.
Afghan views of the destruction are mixed. To Afghans, the land represents not only their livelihood — some are subsistence farmers — but also their family honor.
"To lose land, or sell your land, is shameful," said Abdul Nafi, a smallholder who lost his two acres of vines and almond trees to the road being built in Zangabad. "This will be remembered by everyone; even my children will remember that it was this government that destroyed our land," he said.
Other farmers complained that the road had destroyed the irrigation systems and left acres of vineyards without water.
Some farmers complain that they have not only lost this year’s crops but have also seen their only source of livelihood taken away. The Taliban have been in touch with them already, promising to blow up the road and return their land to them, one farmer said.
Many are philosophical in the face of foreign military might. One man, whose house and vineyard in Zhare were destroyed when U.S. troops fired mine-clearance weapons into them, complained that he could have found people to defuse the IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
"It is possible to defuse them, they are not so sophisticated, but the Americans could not be bothered," he said. "But personally, if I lose all my vines but they eliminate the Taliban from that place, I will be happy," he said, not wanting to be named for fear of Taliban retribution.
Yet when the destruction seems avoidable –as when troops take land for their own bases or for roads — the anger boils over. Many Afghans want the roads improved but resent the unilateral decision to divert the road through prime agricultural land for security reasons.
In Zangabad, where Canadian troops are building the road, one man, Bor Muhammad, lay down in front of bulldozers in an effort to save his farm, villagers said. Although paid $6,000 in compensation, he is still vowing to wrest his land back, they said.
Nafi, 50, and his cousin Abdul Hakim, 45, two smallholders from the area, said they had no warning that the road was going to cut through their land. When Nafi got through the security cordon to his farm, he found it already flattened.
"I could not believe it was my farm; I only saw destruction and demolition of walls, trees and buildings," he said.
He owns less than 2 acres of vineyards, yet it was enough to feed his family of 13. The road clearance has left him with just 150 vines on either side.
"A family cannot live on 150 vines," he said bitterly.
"The people are angry," he warned. "The foreigners should not upset the people, otherwise they would go and join the Taliban."
Maj. Eric Landry, the Canadian combat engineer tasked with building the road, said he had been painstaking in consulting with farmers and landowners all along the road, and was surprised that some people had had no notice of the destruction. Yet he has stopped clearing berths of 25 yards on either side of the road for security, conceding that the destruction was angering farmers.
In 2007, Canadian troops could not secure the road between their outposts and so lost control of the area, he said.
"It is important to get this built before the next fighting season to protect the population," he said.