Afghan ‘Tiger Cat’ Claws at U.S. Image

Times Staff Writer

To hunt the ferocious tiger cat on the Shomali plains north of Kabul, you must move through a maze of walled dirt alleys and dip into the icy fear that chills entire villages.

Along the way, you’ll have to interrogate bombastic heroes who claim to have wrestled and killed these beasts single-handedly, and sift conflicting descriptions of something like a big dog, or a fox, or a cat.

And just when you are convinced the story is a crazy legend, you will meet children scarred by cat attacks, and mourn with a man who lost his grown son to illness after a cat bite.


Whatever it is that is terrifying the villagers on this verdant plain studded with fruit trees and land mines, people here agree on who is responsible: the American military.

Until a few months ago, no one had heard the name pisho palang, or tiger cat, but since then, it has kept villagers indoors at night, terrified of attack.

A Kabul magazine conveyed the terror with its headline, “In Shomali, Dangerous Animals Are Eating People.”

There are some theories that the cats might have crossed the mountains from China, or perhaps are domestic cats gone so feral in the country’s long wars that they acquired a taste for human flesh. But few people give those much credence.

These beasts, the popular view goes, did not just arrive; they were brought here. In the blinkered certainty of village logic, the arrival of two unwelcome groups of newcomers, American soldiers and pisho palang, can only be related.

“Before this new Army came here, we didn’t have these cats,” said Mohammed Yakob, 45, from Saidkhail village, near Charikar, north of Kabul.


Even in anti-Taliban areas, the jubilation over America’s role in toppling the hard-core religious government has long faded and resentment against foreigners is growing. Many Afghans see the American forces as interlopers, even occupiers, and gossip about their bad deeds and ill intent is rife.

In some parts of the country, angry farmers blame Americans for their poor opium poppy crops this season, charging that U.S. planes sprayed them with herbicides -- an assertion denied by U.S. officials. In Charikar, they accuse American servicemen of selling pornographic magazines in the market square.

Near the U.S. base at Bagram airport, just outside Charikar, rumors about the pisho palang convey the scale of the P.R. problem that the American military has in Afghanistan.

In an e-mail response to the questions about the rumors, Col. Roger Davis, of the base press office, rejected the villagers’ assertions that American forces had released the tiger cats, but did not say whether the Americans thought it important to correct the misconceptions.

“No, we don’t use cats, killer cats, Al Qaeda cats, mountain cats, tiger cats, pussy cats or any other cats to execute combat operations,” he wrote.

In the dusty main streets of the villages around here, there’s always a young, brash fellow on the edge of the crowd whose claim to familiarity with the pisho palang trumps everyone else’s. He saw one just last night. He killed one recently. Or he can sell you one.

“How much do you want for it?” asked Fazel, 25, in Saidkhail village, who goes by one name. Pursued, he retreats, then admits, giggling, “OK, I’m lying.”

Another local named Faiz Agha says he killed one in mid-June: “It ran at us, and we killed it. It was like a puppy, the same color as a camel or dust. We threw it in the river, and it floated away.”

But a scornful voice pipes up from the crowd in contradiction: “That wasn’t a pisho palang. It was a baby fox.”

At times, the alleged American motives for releasing the pisho palang and supposed delivery methods strain common sense.

“We heard that foreigners are releasing them at night from planes to eat people. We heard that usually the tiger cats attack the throat and drink all the blood,” said Mohammed Saber, also from Saidkhail.

Air delivery? But wouldn’t the fall kill the cats?

“They fly really low,” said Koko Gul, 20, of nearby Monara village, holding his hands a foot from the ground, “and they just drop the cats onto the ground.”

Fazul Rahim, 28, of Said- khail, said he knew a man who caught a pisho palang in a net. It had some kind of foreign stamp on its rump, he claimed.

“And some American came and he wanted to buy it for $5,000, but my friend wouldn’t sell it,” Rahim said.

He refused $5,000 for a cat?

“Yes. He said, ‘Right now, they’re paying $5,000, but maybe later they’ll pay more,’ ” Rahim recounted.

Villagers say four or five people have been killed in cat attacks, cases that could not be traced. There are tales that dozens of people left villages in recent months to escape the creature.

In Qoochi village, Gul Afraz, 50, tells a rollicking tale, waving his arms, leaping up at times, to illustrate his heroism in bare-handedly wrestling and killing a pisho palang that had attacked a boy three or four months ago.

The tiger cat “attacked like an alcoholic man,” he began. “He went for my throat. I grabbed his throat with my left hand and beat him to the ground and put my left knee on his belly.

“I had a pocketknife in my pocket; I opened it with my teeth and I stabbed him in the head again and again. And then he died.” Gul Afraz says he buried the body.

He mentions an Afghan magazine with his name in it and a picture of the pisho palang. But it was a crudely drawn artist’s impression, a Dracula-feline cross with big fangs, terrifying expression and arched back.

In neighboring Dogh Abad village, the boy who was said to have been attacked, Rahim Dinn, 8, pulls back a ragged shirt to display scars on his chest and leg. He describes how the cat attacked before his sister, Mina, and Gul Afraz intervened.

In Qoochi village, Afsar Kahn, 11, has scars on his torso from an attack in February.

His cousin Abdul Hadi, 28, killed that cat but was bitten and died a month later, his body racked by trembling, said Hadi’s father, Mirza Mohammed, 58. He too blames the Americans at Bagram air base.

“Why did they bring these kind of animals?” he asked despairingly. “Some people think they brought them for security, the way other people have dogs. Or maybe they just like to keep them.”

Others grumble darkly that the American military could have imposed a curfew in the area but found the pisho palang a much more effective tool.

In Charikar, the main town in the area, Police Maj. Turyalai, 34, said two dead specimens each had foreign-style white nylon collars around their necks, which proved that they had been kept by humans.

Fellow policeman Ghulam Sarwar said local people were angry and blamed Americans. But he chortled dismissively when asked if police had investigated the matter with American military authorities.

“If we went to the Americans, they’d say, ‘No, we didn’t release them.’ And who can tell them, ‘Yes, you did do it’?”