ARLINGTON, Va. — The first phase of our military involvement in Afghanistan had a clear-cut purpose: toppling the Taliban. But with that mission accomplished, American-led military operations in Afghanistan are now doing more harm than good.
First, there's the issue of civilian casualties. Speaking to reporters at a base north of Kabul on July 15, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz voiced his regrets about the killing of 48 civilians--including a number of children--in a July 1 U.S. air attack on a village in the Deh Rawod district of Uruzgan province. But, he said, "bad things happen in combat zones," and we should have "no regrets about going after bad guys." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a similar nonapology at the Pentagon on July 22. "If a mistake was made," he said, "a mistake was made, but it was made with our people on the ground with eyes on the target."
The way we went after the "bad guys" in the July 1 incident was to unload the massive and indiscriminate firepower of an AC-130 gunship on a village from which a bombing crew saw, or believed it saw, fire directed at the plane. Rumsfeld said he saw a video of the attack and "clearly there was ground fire," but he could not say what type of weapons were in use on the ground.
In the end, no antiaircraft shells or equipment was found by American troops searching the remains of the village, which would be consistent with the villagers' assertion that they were firing rifles to celebrate a wedding. But even assuming that people on the ground were deliberately firing on the AC-130, responding by bombarding a village with what must have been close to half a ton of bullets, shells and shrapnel is indefensible. It's as if police here shot indiscriminately into a crowd at a mall because someone in the crowd had fired a gun. The use of such lethal weapons is morally acceptable against organized military units in a full-scale war, but it is indefensible against villages in an anti-guerrilla campaign. This incident calls to mind the futile destruction of Vietnamese hamlets by U.S. forces "in order to save them."
In Indochina, we lost our sense of proportion in weighing the effects of destructive firepower against the likely military gains. The same seems to be happening in Afghanistan.
By mid-December of last year, the Taliban and Al Qaeda military organizations had been smashed, and we had recovered for intelligence purposes whatever useful material had been left behind. Judging by media reports, in the operations since then American forces have accidentally killed more than 200 Afghan civilians, a number Rumsfeld dismisses as being small by historical standards. If these civilian casualties had occurred during the real war, lasting from October to December, he might have a valid case. Certainly by Vietnam standards, the numbers are small. But judging from media interviews with U.S. soldiers and pro-government Afghan commanders in the field, the Americans have killed only a small number of terrorists and other enemy allies this year--perhaps even fewer than the 200 civilians killed.
Beyond the problem with civilian casualties, the Pentagon gives virtually no hard data to support its claims that its ongoing operations are accomplishing much beyond finding arms caches. As was reported last week, there has not been a major engagement with Taliban or Al Qaeda forces since March. The previous commander of coalition forces in the country, Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, said the bulk of Al Qaeda and its leadership was no longer in Afghanistan. Canadian, British and Australian troops involved in the continuing American-led search-and-destroy operations this year report frankly that they have not killed or captured one terrorist. The Canadians, having lost four soldiers to a mistaken attack by a U.S. F-16 jet, recently went home. The British are also packing up.