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The battle for Afghan hearts and minds

By Atia Abawi, CNN
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Battle for hearts and minds
  • Afghans displaced by war blame "American oppression" for their plight
  • Man: "The Taliban shoot one bullet; the Americans bombard entire village"
  • In Kabul, some Afghans fear civil war if international troops withdraw
  • Afghans say more focus needed on reconstruction, job creation, counternarcotics

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- "Why are the Americans in our land? What can I say, we are powerless."

The words of an Afghan farmer, Khan Mohmad, who fled war-torn Helmand province, leaving his land behind and finding refuge in a dreary camp on the outskirts of Kabul.

Khan Mohmad along with thousands of other displaced Afghans now squat in makeshift clay huts, using any bits of trash to make a home.

He is a striking man. His eyes lined with kohl and his dirty blond hair wrapped in a gray-black turban as he speaks in a soft but frustrated tone.

"We moved here because of the American oppression," Khan Mohmad says. "If the Taliban shoot one bullet on the Americans from our village, the Americans will bombard the entire village."

He's not the only one discontented and scared of America's intentions when it comes to the war in Afghanistan.

"The Americans are bringing us devastation, they are not helping. If they were helping us, then why are there 770 displaced families freezing in this camp?" says Juma Khan.

Both Juma Khan and Khan Mohmad were among a crowd of men speaking to us at the Charahi Qambar camp.

From the horizon the camp sprawls out for acres.

All from some of the most volatile areas of the country, they've seen Afghans killed and maimed, caught in the crossfire of war.

The consensus among the group here is that they just want the fighting to stop and do not want to see more dead Afghans.

"I want all the coalition authorities and all our brothers to reconcile with the Taliban, so we can solve this problem," Said Mohammad. "Make everyone happy and bring peace to our country so we can go back home."

Just a 20-minute drive from the camp is the bustling capital with shops lining the streets and horns blazing in the endless traffic jams.

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Here you get a different Afghan perspective. Many here say that they welcome the international community's efforts and a possible troop increase. They say their country is not ready to do it on its own.

"NATO plays a key role in Afghanistan," Mohammad Zia says, "but still they need to focus and expand their civilian projects, such as reconstruction, job creation, and assist the counternarcotics struggle."

Afghans throughout the provinces, cities and villages, have said time and again that all they want is peace and stability.

And Zia believes that can't happen without the additional forces.

"We welcome their arrival if they really expel the Taliban, terrorists, and al Qaeda from the borders of Afghanistan," he says, "but if they come and kill more civilians and destroy villages, then they shouldn't come."

Afghanistan is still a country divided, primarily by ethnic groups. And many Afghans are afraid that if the international community decides to pull out, another civil war may erupt.

"Because of the critical situation and widespread discrimination among the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan we have to welcome the arrival of new troops," says 45-year-old Ali Mohammad Ali.

The international community already knows that they can't do it alone. In his assessment sent to Washington the top NATO commander in the country made it clear that the mission in Afghanistan would fail without the support of the Afghans themselves.

A sentiment shared by the Canadian Ambassador to the country, William Crosbie.

"We can not win the war in Afghanistan. Afghans have got to win the war in Afghanistan," Crosbie says, "We are here to support them, and we know we can't win by military means (alone)."

Both the Taliban and the Coalition forces know this is not just about warfare and weaponry, the biggest battle will be for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Back at the camp Lala Jaan, timid and young, stuck out in the crowd of men because of his shorter beard and round face. He came after escaping after a U.S. airstrike hit his village in Kandahar, maiming him for life.

"The Taliban shot at the Americans, and then the Americans bombarded the whole area. A bullet hit and mutilated my hand," he says.

He showed us his left arm, mangled and deformed. He gestures to it with his right hand, also disfigured when a bullet was shot through it.

But still he seeks the help of the United States.

"I ask that the United States government and President [Hamid] Karzai help the poor people in this camp," he says.

"Everyone here will die because of the cold winter, the snows will start soon. Someone told us we should leave this place (for safety), but where can we go?"