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Afghanistan: After Tragic Week, U.S. Signals Change In Military Operations

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A tragic week has shone a critical spotlight on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, 10 months after the start of the war to rout the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and its hosts, the Taliban. Stung by anti-U.S. sentiment in Afghanistan, the Bush administration appears set to end large-scale military operations and focus on stabilizing the shaky new Afghan government. As RFE/RL reports, "winning the peace" may require winning Afghan hearts and minds.

Washington, 8 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has signaled a major policy shift in its military operations in Afghanistan following a week of destabilizing bloodshed. The deaths of dozens of civilians in a mistaken U.S. air strike and the assassination of a key Pashtun official in the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have helped prompt the policy reassessment.

According to a report in Sunday's "The Washington Post," the Bush administration considers its 10-month military operation in Afghanistan to be largely over. Its focus will now shift to using small units of special forces and CIA operatives to wage a so-called "war in the shadows" against the remains of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban.

Their efforts will be small in scale and bombing is likely to stop, the report said, citing unidentified senior U.S. officials. The 7,000 or so U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are likely to remain, but they will concentrate less on military operations and more on providing an assuring presence in support of Karzai's shaky government.

"The Washington Post" report came after a convulsive week in Afghanistan, a week that highlighted the tenuousness of U.S. success there.

On 1 July, the deaths of dozens of civilians in an errant U.S. Air Force attack sparked perhaps the sharpest anti-U.S. criticism from Afghans since the start of the war last October, including an anti-American protest on the streets of Kabul.

Two days ago, Abdul Qadir, one of the Transitional Authority's five vice presidents, was gunned down in Kabul. The motive is unclear, but the killing suggests that traditional ethnic rivalries are threatening Karzai's coalition government just two weeks after its selection by the Loya Jirga. Together with Karzai, Qadir was a vital voice for Pashtuns, who feel largely shut out of a coalition heavily influenced by ethnic Tajiks from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

If "The Washington Post" report is confirmed, the shift in the U.S. military role would be welcomed by many analysts, commentators, and human-rights activists in the U.S., who say things have changed on the ground in Afghanistan. Military operations no longer reap major rewards. They believe the paramount need now is to stabilize the country and maintain popular support for the U.S.-led rebuilding effort.

Carl Conetta is co-director of the Project for Defense Alternatives, or PDA, a Massachusetts-based think tank. He believes that ending the bombing and large-scale military operations in Afghanistan is long overdue. "None of this, I think, serves our interest or Karzai's interests in the long run. The reason that we were here in the first place [is Osama] bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, [and they] are over the border [in Pakistan] or scattered in the east in very small numbers. So, to some extent, I think we've lost our way," Conetta said.

The new U.S. policy appears to be an effort to find the right track. Implicit in the new approach is the realization that anti-American publicity in Afghanistan can threaten Karzai's U.S.-backed government, as well as regional stability.

On 5 July, Bush spoke for five minutes on the phone with Karzai, expressing his sorrow over the civilian casualties in Uruzgan. Bush weighed in again the following day over the death of Qadir, calling him a "good man" while reaffirming American commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan.

The U.S. military acknowledged on 6 July that civilians had been killed in Uruzgan, although the exact number could not be confirmed because U.S. officials say they were shown just five graves. In Kabul, Lieutenant General Dan McNeill vowed the U.S. will investigate the incident thoroughly and do everything it can to ensure nothing like it happens again.

The tragedy sparked the anger of officials in Kabul and Uruzgan, one of whom said that while the Taliban was bad, at least the radical militia never killed dozens of civilians in air attacks. Uruzgan's governor said that if the U.S. doesn't hand over those responsible for the errant attack, they will be considered "enemies."

Some prominent U.S. commentators, such as Jim Hoagland of "The Washington Post," are urging the Bush administration to take a hard look at the toll the war has had on Afghan civilians and provide compensation to the families of victims.

According to Hoagland, the State Department has asked the Defense Department to consider such compensation. However, Pentagon spokesman Major Jay Stiuk told RFE/RL that nothing has been decided. "There's a fact-finding team that's looking into this particular incident [in Uruzgan], and it's premature to begin talking about things like compensation before you know what the facts are," Hoagland said.

Kenneth Roth, head of the U.S.-based human-rights group Human Rights Watch, also hopes the U.S. government will simply "do the right thing" and offer compensation to families.

The facts on civilian casualties are far from clear. The U.S. military has made no study of the war's toll on civilians, effectively leaving it to analysts and rights activists. While some studies put the civilian death toll as high as 5,000, most analyses done by the media and independent analysts indicate around 1,000 civilian deaths.

Roth said Human Rights Watch is set to publish in the coming weeks the results of a months-long investigation into civilian Afghan deaths. He would not reveal its conclusions ahead of time.

A study done by the Project for Defense Alternatives used respected analytical methods to interpret reports by non-U.S. Western media and eyewitnesses on the ground. That study concludes that between 1,000 and 1,300 Afghan civilians have been killed since the war's start in October. But Conetta of the PDA said that it would be in the U.S.'s strategic interest to determine the exact number. "Of course, it's important to try to get that number as quickly as we can because it bears on the conduct of the war, and it bears on whether we're behaving in a smart way," Conetta said.

Like Roth of Human Rights Watch, Conetta believes the issue of Afghan civilian casualties is undermining U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds not only of Afghans but of the Muslim world in general.

In a Muslim world already suspicious of U.S. policy in the Middle East, whether regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or possible military action against Iraq, Conetta believes that a single photograph or video image of a maimed Afghan child could greatly undermine support for America. "[Using images of casualties] is the way that the concern or frustration or anger or misperception in the Muslim world becomes embodied. They become embodied in the picture of an injured child, someone torn up by shrapnel. It's not really effective to say this is the cleanest war we've ever fought. It doesn't really match up to the fact of even the photographic evidence of what a clean war costs," Conetta said.

While America perceives victory over the tyranny of the Taliban as a major victory for Afghans themselves, Conetta said the price of such pictures for the U.S. war on terrorism, for America's image in the Muslim world, is high. "Our own perspective is that it's clear that any large number of civilian casualties has a detrimental effect on our attempt to drive a wedge between bin Laden and his potential constituency in the Muslim world," Conetta said.

Conetta believes America is fighting an uphill battle to win public opinion in Afghanistan, despite support for the overthrow of the Taliban. "The fact of the matter is we're not well-loved in the country. Very few people like us or trust us, and that includes the Tajik militias. They don't trust us, and they don't particularly like us. But that's the reality of the situation," Conetta said.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani expert on Afghanistan, said Karzai's strategy of bringing warlords into the Kabul government and keeping them in the capital to extend the power of the central authority may backfire. Rashid is quoted as saying that Qadir was that strategy's linchpin, and that after the "terrible blow" of his assassination, other warlords may be hesitant to follow suit.

Roth of Human Rights Watch agrees that attempting to stabilize Afghanistan by coming to terms with so-called "friendly warlords" is a challenging task. "Friendly or not, a warlord is a warlord. And what we are finding in various parts of the country is that these warlords are solidifying their grasp on power by cracking down on any emergent civil society, by continuing to oppress women, by continuing to engage in ethnic reprisals," Roth said.

To be sure, U.S. allies and critics have taken Washington to task for not backing a nationwide international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, but simply a force in Kabul. Washington says its main concern is to train a new Afghan army that can handle national security on its own.

Whether Washington changes its mind on peacekeeping remains to be seen.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is fluid, and that "winning the peace" could depend on their ability to react quickly to changing circumstances and to avoid actions that could turn public opinion against Karzai's transitional government.

Conetta said it all boils down to finding a balance between political aims and methods. "What we need to do is focus on the heart of the problem, which is: How do you combine military effectiveness with positive political impact? Because in the end, we don't want them [just] to smile and cooperate when we show up with dollars in our hands. We want to win their hearts and minds," Conetta said.

There is no easy recipe for success, but a sustained period of peace and stability would be a good start in Afghanistan.