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U.S. Raid on Village Prompts Afghans to Demand Changes in War Strategies

July 15, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAKARAK, Afghanistan — As the night turned to gray dawn, U.S. forces entered this remote village, proceeding at first as they would in enemy territory, searching house to house, restraining weeping relatives, speaking in brusque tones.

But then, according to villagers, they focused on the bodies. What they saw were hardly armed Taliban fighters. There were women, their bodies torn to pieces, young girls in party dresses, toddlers and infants. The soldiers realized that something had gone terribly wrong.

Of the 48 dead, all but three were women and children, according to a report compiled by Afghan government officials who visited the area.

In an episode that may prove a turning point in America's involvement in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have acknowledged civilian casualties, although they have neither confirmed nor denied the figures. However, now they are coming under pressure to change the way they are prosecuting the war.

"When the soldiers saw the women and children, they were sad and they told the translator, 'We made a mistake,' " said villager Sahib Jan, who, like many of the victims, was attending an engagement party at the time of the raid.

Kakarak and four nearby villages in central Afghanistan were the targets of a heavily investigated and disputed bombing raid by U.S. forces on the night of June 30 and predawn hours of July 1. Although no one disagrees that a tragedy was the result, there are conflicting accounts over the circumstances of the attack: Villagers say they were firing into the air to celebrate an impending marriage; U.S. officials say there was sustained antiaircraft fire aimed at planes overhead.

Nonetheless, the soldiers' early acknowledgment of error on the ground appears to have been repeated by U.S. officials in private conversations with Afghans up to the highest levels of government, including a telephone call from President Bush to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

U.S. officials, including members of the military, have quietly promised to build schools, roads and hospitals and to drill wells in the district where the bombing took place, said Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Aref Noorzai, who led the Afghans in a joint delegation with Americans to investigate the raid.

What hangs in the balance is whether the Pentagon will agree to make the long-term changes in its military approach demanded by Afghan officials.

So far, the military has been reluctant to restrict its operations here in Oruzgan province, presumably because many people, including Afghans, believe that senior Taliban members--among them Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the ousted hard-line Islamic regime--might be finding shelter here. Omar was raised less than a mile from Kakarak.

Afghan government officials, however, say that change is mandatory. And the kind of change they're talking about would constitute a major departure from U.S. military engagements in the post-Vietnam era.

Afghans and many U.S. military experts contend that the enemy pockets that need to be rooted out require surgical strikes by ground troops. Aerial bombing, even if it is based on intelligence developed on the ground, is too risky in most situations, they say.

"They need to keep aerial bombardments to a minimum and rely more on infantry and ground forces--especially since now they are fighting against small groups of people," said Tayyeb Jawad, chief of staff for Karzai and until recently a lawyer in San Francisco.

Pentagon officials say American forces are already limiting airstrikes.

"We are going to retain the ability to use the proper type of forces for the operational situation," Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, said in Washington. "In this [July 1] operation we had ground troops. The air was there for support."

Afghan officials believe that in the Kakarak incident, as in several previous bombing raids that killed civilians, the U.S. relied on intelligence from Afghan informers who were settling personal scores.

Several ministers, including Foreign Minister Abdullah, say they want the U.S. to consult closely both with local leaders installed by the new government and with the Afghan Defense Ministry before undertaking any bombing raids. But it wouldn't be easy for the U.S. forces to conduct such consultations and retain the element of surprise they need to make the raids successful.

In a signal of the depth of the problems already caused by the July 1 raid, Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai said Friday that he and the governors of five other ethnic Pushtun provinces in central Afghanistan, including Oruzgan, would require U.S. forces to seek their permission before launching military operations in their region.

He also announced the creation of two militias independent of the central government, one of which would work with the U.S. military. Such a development, if it comes to fruition, would be disastrous for U.S. efforts to foster a strong central government.

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