Afghanistan (Reuters) – Mortally wounded after setting off an improvised bomb, the boy might have survived. But rather than use the hotline provided them by Canadian troops, fellow villagers carried him out for treatment.
By the time they reached the Canadian outpost, using a wheelbarrow as a gurney, the 5-year-old was dead. A couple of days later, the soldiers were back in the Afghan hamlet of mud-brick huts to try to persuade its residents to be more forthcoming.
“While there is a system in place, it has deficiencies,” said Major Austin Douglas, the company commander.
He was referring mainly to a telephone line set up to allow local Afghans to summon help or provide tip-offs about Taliban insurgents, with six translators on hand to pass on the calls.
The initiative has been stymied by logistics, and fear.
Cellphones are relatively rare in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas like Kandahar province, where the Taliban insurgency against U.S.-led foreign troops is at its most potent.
The Taliban regard cellphone users as potential spies, and Afghan service-providers have been known to turn off antennas at night — when insurgents prefer to operate — out of concern their own facilities could come under attack.
“They will just kill us if we speak to Western forces,” said Abdul Wahab, a 25-year-old farmer.
Another man recalled an ugly encounter with the insurgents.
“They took me once for a long time and beat me and said if I talk with the Canadians they will behead me,” he said with a throat-cutting gesture.
Apparently eclipsed amid all this alarm was the outrage over the boy’s death, which the Canadians, passing out children’s stickers and soft drinks, blamed on the “bad” Taliban.
Kandahar is the focus of a military and reconstruction push that the Afghan government and NATO forces hope will break the grip of the Taliban by providing services, jobs and stability.
If the campaign doesn’t work, Afghanistan may be unstable for years to come. Worst case, the Taliban, having been toppled in 2001, might return to power — exacting vengeance against Afghans who had worked with the foreigners.
“We need the cooperation of the people. Many are stuck in the middle. They need to be able to control their lives. We will not be here forever,” said Winslow Taylor, a Canadian master-corporal who has learned some of the local language to build trust with Afghans.
The Canadian military contingent, which has suffered some of the biggest casualties in the war, is slated to leave next year.
Afghan villagers are already keeping account.
“Where is the paved road you said you would build?” one man challenged the Canadians.
In another area visited by the patrol the next day, locals listened as the Canadians chronicled the reasons for the Afghan invasion: to hunt down al Qaeda after it attacked the United States, and to do away with the militants’ Taliban sponsors.
Then one farmer recalled how the Taliban once appeared wearing Canadian military uniforms, and slaughtered seven people.