A pattern is emerging in Afghanistan of cases in which U.S. air strikes intended to target Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are instead killing civilians. In many cases, the mistakes appear to be the result of faulty information provided by Afghan fighters who are supposed to be working with U.S.-led coalition forces. An investigative piece published by "The New York Times" yesterday says some Afghan factions are intentionally providing incorrect information to U.S. forces in order to target their Afghan rivals. In this news analysis, RFE/RL reports that coalition forces appear to be getting caught in the middle of disputes between rival Afghan factions.
Kabul, 22 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When tribal elders from southeast Afghanistan tried to travel to the inauguration of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai last December, they were mistakenly bombed by a U.S. B-52. U.S. military officials initially believed the vehicles were carrying members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Survivors of the air strike say their convoy had been stopped minutes before the bombing at a roadblock manned by fighters under the command of one of their longtime rivals, the ethnic Pashtun warlord Padshah Khan Zadran.
At the time, Zadran was considered a key U.S. ally in southeast Afghanistan. The survivors allege that Zadran himself called in the air strikes as revenge in a longtime feud. They say Zadran knowingly lied to U.S. military officials by informing them that their convoy carried Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders.
U.S. officials have since admitted they may have received faulty intelligence in that case. And in the months that have followed, Zadran has continued the feud by launching a series of rocket and artillery barrages against civilians in Paktia's provincial capital of Gardez.
As a result, Washington has publicly distanced itself from Zadran. Today, the warlord is no longer being called a U.S. ally. He has gone into hiding, and there are indications he is being hunted by the very coalition forces that had once called him their key Pashtun ally.
Zadran is one of the best examples of how warlordism is threatening the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan by nullifying months of work by foreign forces to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
With only a limited number of U.S. special forces operating on the ground in Afghanistan, coalition efforts have instead relied on local warlords to help hunt down the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The warlords are being paid, trained, and, in some cases, even supplied with weapons by the United States.
But a disturbing pattern is emerging as a result of America's reliance on local Afghan fighters to provide information on ground targets. The pattern suggests that the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition is being manipulated by rival Afghan warlords to settle their own personal vendettas.
The latest example is an air strike earlier this month that Afghan officials say killed more than 50 civilians at a pre-wedding party at the home of a personal friend and fellow clan member of Karzai.
Many of those killed and injured at the party in Oruzgan Province were struck by rockets from U.S. helicopter gunships and artillery from an AC-130 gunship that struck the area after Afghan ground troops reported hostile fire nearby. The U.S. is investigating the incident.
Karzai told RFE/RL that the man whose home was targeted had saved his life last year from Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. And it is now emerging that the Afghan ground troops who called in the air strikes against the party were Afghan rivals of Karzai's Popalzai clan.
An investigative piece published yesterday in "The New York Times" says hundreds of Afghan civilians have been killed because the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan relies too heavily on mistaken information -- sometimes intentionally faulty intelligence -- provided by local Afghans on the ground.
The report says Washington's preference for air strikes instead of riskier U.S. ground operations has made it difficult for coalition forces to check the accuracy of the intelligence being received from their Afghan allies.
"The New York Times" investigated 11 locations where air strikes have killed as many as 400 civilians during the past six months.
Officials in the Pentagon say their strategy has been evolving in recent months away from air strikes and toward the use of ground forces to hunt down remaining Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
But in practice, that strategy has meant an even greater reliance on information provided by local Afghan fighters who may have grudges against civilians from rival clans.
Karzai's spokesman, Tayeb Jawad, has rejected criticism that American military strategy and poor intelligence has led to heavy civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Jawad said there have been fewer than 500 civilians killed in U.S. air strikes since coalition forces launched operations in Afghanistan last year. He said that number is low, considering the size of the military campaign.
Still, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has demanded that the U.S. be more careful and verify its intelligence reports before launching air strikes. He has said that Afghanistan may withdraw future support for coalition operations in Afghanistan if there are further civilian casualties.
Other Afghan officials are warning that high-profile civilian casualties -- like the bombing of Karzai's friend and ally in Oruzgan Province -- are beginning to turn Afghans against the foreign troops in the country. They say the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition is increasingly being seen as a foreign occupation force rather than a force that liberated Afghans from the oppressive Taliban regime.
Twenty-three years of warfare in Afghanistan have created a constellation of regional warlords with thousands of loyal armed troops who are funded by the warlords' control of trade and drug-smuggling routes. Most of these warlords bear grudges against their rivals and remain only nominally linked to Karzai's central government.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, reported to the UN Security Council last week that the long-standing rivalries between Afghan warlords are preventing the establishment of effective security in the country.
Brahimi cited some 70 attacks on aid workers since January, the gang rape of a female aid worker last month, the assassination of Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir earlier this month, disputed governorships, and sporadic fighting in half a dozen provinces.
And Brahimi said his list does not begin to capture the insecurity in certain regions of the country where Afghans feel they are permanently at the mercy of armed groups.
In recent weeks, following the negative publicity generated by the Oruzgan Province air strikes, Washington announced that it is re-examining its heavy reliance on one faction of the former Northern Alliance, the ethnic Tajiks from the northern Panjshir Valley.
That faction comprises the Jamiat-i-Islami Party, which controls many of the most powerful posts in the Transitional Authority, including the Defense Ministry and command of the internal security and intelligence services.
One notable sign of Washington's policy change became apparent today when U.S. special forces were deployed at Karzai's presidential palace in Kabul to enhance the Afghan leader's personal security.
Until today, most of the security at the presidential palace had been provided by rank-and-file Panjshiri troops from the military wing of Jamiat-i-Islami. Karzai recently became involved in a dispute when he tried to evict some of those troops who were living illegally at the presidential compound.
Concerns about Karzai's personal safety also have risen in the aftermath of the assassinations of Qadir and the interim Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman, both of whom had once been allies of Jamiat-i-Islami but had turned away from that faction to support Karzai.
The long-term security plan for Afghanistan is to establish a multiethnic Afghan national army that is under the control of Karzai's central government. Some 250 U.S. and French troops are now training two battalions of Afghan soldiers that are to become the nucleus of that force. The first battalion is due to graduate tomorrow, while a third battalion is to begin its training by the end of the month.