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Afghan Exiles Unite in Anger Toward U.S.
Among the 22,000 Afghans taking refuge in this city from the political catastrophes that have long afflicted their homeland, there was much anger Monday over the U.S. airstrikes against a person, Osama bin Laden, and a problem, the Taliban, the exiles see as American creations.
Bombing Afghan cities and suspected hide-outs of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network only exposes civilians to danger and further destabilizes a country that has been reeling for decades from war and foreign intrusions, say those who dream of one day going home to a peaceful land.
Hamburg, a thriving port that handles container traffic between Europe and Asia, has long been a popular refuge for Afghans. It harbors nearly a quarter of the 100,000 country's exiles in Germany.
But the community here reflects the many ethnic and political divisions that have ravaged Afghanistan, and Sunday's airstrikes by U.S. and British forces seem to have united the exiles only in their fears that yet another undesirable leadership will seize power if and when the Taliban regime falls.
"We have to ask ourselves why the Americans are attacking Bin Laden when they are the ones who put him there. They are the ones who gave him weapons and power, and no one cared what he did with them after the war with the Russians was over," said Mazula Soumma, referring to Bin Laden's service with U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Soumma forbid her grandchildren to go to school Monday for fear the airstrikes might incite unrest among emigre factions.
Her worries were understandable, given the presence of gangs of young Afghans loitering around the Savoy cinema on Steindamm, a hangout for pro-Taliban exiles. At the Arabic-language movie house and along the cobblestone mall that runs through a warren of Afghan shops, restaurants and associations, the youths denounced U.S. and British forces and jeered at some passersby for failing to act against the latest national outrage.
Many exiles fear that a new regime might be as unpopular as the Taliban, or might be bent on settling old scores.
The Northern Alliance, an Islamic opposition force that has been fighting the Taliban for years and has drawn criticism for its own violent conduct, is seen as resurgent despite the recent death of its leader, Ahmed Shah Masoud. It is preparing to sweep into Kabul, the Afghan capital, if a power vacuum develops.
But replacing one hard-line force with another is not the solution, the exiles insist.
"We are against the Taliban. There is no question there. But we are also against a return of the king [Mohammed Zaher, who was deposed in 1973] or rule by the Northern Alliance," said Aziz Piloti, an activist with the Council of Afghans in Northern Germany. The council once sought to unite the 52 factions and clans here but has itself become a victim of internal dissent.
Like others clustered around a few chipped desks in smoky rooms near Steindamm, Piloti sees the airstrikes as interference in the already ruined political system. The theory, at least among those passing judgment here the morning after the bombing started, is that U.S. and British forces are being duped by Pakistan into clearing out the neighboring Taliban so that a more compliant regime can be installed.
"Pakistan is a military dictatorship, yet it claims it cannot keep these thousands of people from demonstrating in favor of the Taliban," said Mir Abul Quassam Soumma, head of the decimated council and Soumma's husband.
Jailed for 14 years during the reign of Zaher Shah, who was deposed after 40 years in power, Mir Soumma is perturbed by U.S.-led negotiations on a future power structure that would involve the king.
A return of the monarchy is also anathema to many leftist Afghans who took refuge in Hamburg after the Soviet occupation of their homeland ended in 1989 or after Afghanistan's Communist government fell three years later.
In Britain, home to 30,000 Afghan exiles, there also are widespread concerns about foreign meddling.
"What we're concerned about is the future, and we don't think the Americans and British are giving the future enough thought," said Jawid Ludin, an exile in London who works for a coalition of aid groups. "I see my country once more having its sovereignty violated."
Although Afghans tend to acknowledge that they are too divided to arrange a post-Taliban government on their own--"You can't find five Afghans here who agree on anything," said Zia Saheli of the Hamburg council--they are offended by outsiders' efforts to decide their affairs. On Monday, European Union foreign ministers backed a Franco-German formula that calls for a transitional government with a role for the king.
And most exiles here have a deep suspicion of Pakistan's sudden alliance with the West.
Mazula Soumma warned that the U.S. might be falling into the trap of serving factional interests.
"Americans will soon realize that the Pakistanis aren't trying to help them find Osama bin Laden," she said, suggesting that Pakistan had more selfish goals in mind. "And they will also soon realize that the Northern Alliance are the same swine that have been creating havoc in our country for years."
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Janet Stobart in The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.