Ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks fought in the streets with sticks and stones for several hours in the northern Afghan city of Taloqan on Saturday before the violence escalated to gunfire, leaving three people dead and 52 wounded.
But when international leaders review the game reel of the incident, what should be most distressing – especially to the United States, who has spent more than 4,000 lives and billions of dollars in Afghanistan over the last dozen years – was the nearly absurd tactical response by Afghan National Police, who didn’t just fail to stem the violence, but have even been accused of helping create it.
More than 400 national police officers were mobilised around Takhar Province National Police headquarters in response to a weeklong rally by ethnic Uzbeks, frustrated by what they say is a lack of representation in both the national government and the province. The last straw, they say, was when an Uzbek police chief for the province was sacked and replaced by one of the Interior Minister’s cronies.
Initially the National Police forces seemed to be the very model of restraint, with a large but unintimidating presence of officers on every corner and patrolling the streets, showing off their new gear from the Americans, including a Glock sidearm and Ford supercab police trucks mounted with machine guns. Several fire trucks were also deployed in the area in case they were needed to disperse the protestors with water cannons. The police made good use of street intel as well, using spies, they say, to help arrest half a dozen men suspected of trying to smuggle weapons into the protest.
But by late afternoon everything had turned to shit. Almost as if it were prearranged, Uzbek protesters and a group of mostly Tajik counterprotesters, as many as 500 total, faced off on a Taloqan street a half mile from the city center.
Only insults were hurled initially, but within minutes stones were flying in both directions. The groups took turns charging each other, both sides waving Afghan flags, and trying to overrun the other’s position.
I saw one man from the Tajik side pulled over to the Uzbek side and pummeled with fists and sticks. But instead of using their numbers and vehicles to divide the groups, Afghan National Police mostly deployed behind the Tajik counterprotesters and watched the stones fly.
Police chiefs worldwide would agree that this would have been the time to separate the groups – using nonlethal means like tear-gas rounds or water cannons to break up a protest that was already an all-out street brawl.
Instead, after sitting on the sidelines for a bit, Afghan police lieutenants urged some of their officers forward to push back the Uzbeks and the others to hold back the Tajiks. It was not only ineffective, but almost comical, like a few children trying to break up a schoolyard fight between hundreds.
While the frontline officers did their best to calm the groups down, the police leadership hung back behind the Tajik protestors, choosing not to send in the brand new fire trucks or use other riot-dispersion gear.
Over the course of the afternoon, the incident developed a rhythm of its own. The crowd would settle down for a few minutes while officers desperately negotiated with each group, and then some hotheaded kid on one side or another would hurl a rock, restarting the cycle.
This continued until, finally, as many here feared, the guns came out. By the end of the day, scores were wounded and three killed. The episode didn't inspire much confidence in the idea that Afghan security forces will be prepared to handle not only outside threats, but their own internal ethnic divisions, once international forces leave in 2014.
One of the Uzbek leaders, Haji Jamshed, also a member of the Takhar Provincial Council, claims that the government was behind the counterprotest that helped spark the deadly violence, something the National Police strongly deny. But true or not, the failure to showcase their training and tactics to de-escalate the conflict without bloodshed is not encouraging.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist, who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement”. Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan in a taxi covering the tumultous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep checking back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
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