Protests in Afghanistan’s north turn violent

An Afghan protester shouts slogansduring a demonstration in Kabul on April 1, 2011.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper name of the Taliban's website. It is

Once again, an operation by international forces has sparked violent protests, this time in the northern province of Takhar. At least 12 people are now dead and more than 65 injured after a crowd angry at the deaths of civilians turned into a mob. It has not yet been confirmed who fired the shots that killed the protesters: the police attempting to restore order or armed agitators within the crowd itself.

On May 17, NATO staged a night raid on what it said was the home of a “facilitator” for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an insurgent group that has been making the headlines more and more often here of late.

Two men and two women were killed; this much is not in dispute. But NATO insists that the women were also insurgents, that they were armed, and attempting to attack the international troops during the raid.

“A woman wearing a chest rack and armed with an AK-47 rifle attempted to engage the force,” according to a statement released by the media office of the International Joint Command (IJC). “The security force gave numerous verbal warnings, but when the armed female pointed her weapon at them, she was subsequently killed.”

Another woman, allegedly armed with a pistol, then ran out of the compound, according to the IJC. She “displayed hostile intent by pointing her pistol at the security force. The security force engaged the female resulting in her death.”

Two males were also killed during the operation. But, the IJC insisted, “throughout the entire operation the security force was careful to ensure the safety of all civilians.”

This explanation apparently did not wash with the residents of Taloqan district, in which the operation took place.

They poured onto the streets, numbering more than 2,000, according to local reports.

According to intelligence officials in Takhar, armed agitators in the crowd attempted to incite the protesters to attack the German Provincial Reconstruction Team in Taloqan. Shots were fired. By the time police managed to restore order at least 12 people were dead and dozens more injured. Hospitals in the district center are overwhelmed by the casualties, according to media reports from the scene.

The Taliban were tweeting their own version of the incident before the smoke had cleared.

An article on their website claimed that five people were killed in the raid, all civilians.

“The U.S. terrorist forces invaded the house of a civilian, Mula Khayat, near the capital of Takhar province and brutally martyred five members of the same family including Mula Khayat himself, his wife, two daughters and his guest in what was a flagrant act of heinous terrorism,” said the author, identified only as “Omar.”

The Taliban further stated that all those who died were “martyred” by the police forces.

According to unconfirmed reports from Afghan officials, the target of the raid in Gawmili village, about 3 kilometers from Taloqan, was a Taliban commander who had already left the area by the time the operation began.

Takhar is not natural Taliban country. It was the last holdout when the fundamentalists swept the country beginning in 1996. Taloqan itself, which is the capital, did not fall until September of 2000. The province also sheltered the remnants of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Massoud, the national hero who was killed in Takhar two days before Sept. 11.

The IMU has played a more prominent role lately in the reporting of the insurgency in Afghanistan. In late April, NATO stated that it had killed the top IMU commander in Afghanistan, who was “a key conduit between the senior IMU leadership in Pakistan and senior Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.”

The May 17 raid, as well as its aftermath, is likely to create even more friction in an already contentious relationship between NATO and the Afghan government.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has already had several dust-ups with U.S. General David Petraeus on the issue of civilian casualties. Karzai has rejected Petraeus’ apologies over some incidents, and has put the U.S. forces on notice that civilian casualties “are no longer acceptable.”

But the issue of who is or is not an insurgent is one that will complicate the current debate.

NATO’s position is clear: it had credible intelligence, targeted the correct compound, and eliminated dangerous insurgents who posed a clear risk to the safety of the raiding force.

But the chief of police of Takhar province, Shah Jahan Noori, told the media that those killed were not fighters. He termed the night raid “irresponsible” and called for such operations to stop.

"I strongly condemn this brutal act which only killed civilians," Noori told Reuters.

He added that the raid was based on false intelligence, and that all of the dead were Afghans.

"This will only create distance between ordinary people, the government and its international partners," he said.