Are We Losing the Peace?

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CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP

Abdul Malik grieves for family members slain during his engagement party

The Afghan province of Uruzgan, north of Kandahar, is brutal territory. Its villages have been racked by decades of war, and the summer heat can reach an inhospitable 120 degrees. A few weeks ago, Abdul Rahim, a local chieftain in Uruzgan's Deh Rawod district, reclined on a pillow in the shade of a thatch awning and spoke of what it would take to bring hope to this blighted land. It's a simple list, really: a few roads, schools and hospitals. "Rebuilding this country is the way to deny it to al-Qaeda," he told TIME.

But Afghanistan won't be an easy place to set right. In large pockets of the country, military action continues unabated, with all its attendant risks. An American AC-130 gunship last week apparently raked a wedding celebration in the Deh Rawod village of Kakarak, about 70 miles north of Kandahar. Afghan authorities say more than 40 people were killed. President Bush called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to express his sympathy for those who lost loved ones, and the two leaders committed themselves to a full investigation of the tragedy. But the deaths prompted the first anti-American demonstration in Kabul, the Afghan capital, since the fall of the Taliban. A few days later, Haji Abdul Qadir, a Deputy President in Karzai's government, was killed in his car outside the Ministry of Public Works. Two gunmen, who had been hiding in bushes by the driveway, riddled the car with bullets. Qadir was one of the leading figures of Afghanistan's majority Pashtun community, and his death deals a grievous blow to the stability of Karzai's team.

The Kakarak incident remains something of a mystery. American investigators found no bodies among the debris, though locals insist that's because the dead were buried quickly, in accordance with local custom. The Afghans blame the Americans for overreacting to celebratory shooting at the wedding; the Americans maintain that the AC-130 was responding to enemy fire.

There are, no doubt, plenty of people in Uruzgan who wish the Americans ill. Pentagon sources contend that in the past month American forces have been directly fired upon three times by Afghans who later claimed they had been "celebrating." Around Deh Rawod, says Marine Lieut. General Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "there is enormous sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaeda." Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, was raised in the region, as were two of his top lieutenants, Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Bradar. All three are still at large. The Kabul government controls the area in name only, and few humanitarian groups have ventured into the hot, dusty hills. For weeks, small teams of American special forces have been operating around Deh Rawod, searching for the hard-core Taliban fighters who headed there at the end of last year.

At around 2 a.m. on July 1, an allied ground force of 300 to 400 troops, together with air support, was engaged in a series of operations throughout the Deh Rawod region. A B-52 bomber pounded a cave and tunnel complex; special forces on the ground discovered a weapons cache with thousands of rounds of armor-piercing ammunition. Allied sources in Afghanistan say that ground forces saw a mortar being covered with a tarpaulin in Kakarak and that later they were fired upon as they approached the village. At that point the soldiers called in support from the AC-130. (That night the gunship attacked no fewer than six sites.) American sources claim — and Afghan sources deny — that the plane was targeted by antiaircraft fire from inside the compound where a wedding celebration was under way. "Personnel on the AC-130 felt that the weapons were tracking them," said Colonel Roger King, a Pentagon spokesman at Bagram air base, north of Kabul. So the gunship — a flying arsenal loaded with machine guns and a 105-mm howitzer — fired on the compound. Subsequent comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did little to soften the blow. "There cannot be the use of that kind of firepower and not have mistakes," he said. "It is going to happen."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Kakarak, the episode reveals just how tricky the war in Afghanistan has become. The U.S. may have won, in the accepted sense of the word, but the enemy hasn't surrendered. Since the battle of Shah-i-Kot in March, al-Qaeda and Taliban forces have split into smaller and smaller groups, which survive by mixing with civilian populations. That's exactly what a big, heavily armed superpower with a taste for making war from the air doesn't want; it makes the chance of accidents like Kakarak much more likely.

Such dramas add to a sense that the U.S. may be losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Afghans. That's especially true in the south, where most of the American military action is now concentrated and where U.S. propaganda has to contend with an overheated rumor mill in the teahouses and bazaars. Inevitably, Karzai is linked to America's mistakes. "In the eyes of ordinary Afghans," says a senior U.N. official, "this government's fate is intertwined with the American performance." Afghan exile Hamid, a Pashtun now in Quetta, Pakistan, says of Karzai, "He is nothing. Just the son of George W. Bush." Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), remarks, "There's a sense down there, rightly or wrongly, of an occupied country."

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