According to the Pentagon, Taliban forces have made the air campaign more difficult by hiding out in civilian areas such as university compounds and mosques. Despite relatively light bombing (compared, say, with the Kosovo campaign) Afghanistan has already seen its fair share of "collateral damage" incidents. But without much by way of Western media on the ground in the target zone, many of the reports are difficult to confirm. Still, we know from Western aid workers in the country that a Red Cross facility was hit in Kabul, and a hospital and a mosque in Herat. And unconfirmed reports suggest significant civilian casualties in villages around Kandahar, too.
Although there are no reliable numbers, it is not numbers but images that give "collateral damage" incidents their power to affect the course of war: the young Vietnamese girl, her skin burned away by napalm, running down a street; the corpses of Iraqi women killed in a bomb shelter; bodies strewn around a Yugoslav passenger train struck by a NATO rocket, and so on. Already Al Jezeera, the only TV network with a bureau in Kabul, is carrying images of the broken bodies of civilian casualties. And on the Internet, ordinary citizens are able to see the latest photographs posted by the wire services even before the photo editors of their local newspapers have had a chance to "filter" the images.
Can we keep this up?
Pictures of civilians hurt in the bombings, together with those of the tens of thousands of wretchedly poor Afghans fleeing their homes to avoid the fighting may speak more forcefully to the citizenry of America's alliance partners than the promises of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that this war is for the benefit of the Afghan people. And as the onset of winter leaves millions potentially facing starvation in a country that was largely dependent on food aid long before the current war began, the humanitarian crisis may soon begin to compete with the priority of overthrowing the Taliban regime in the minds of many alliance partners.
Pakistan, for example, which will bear the brunt of the refugee load, has always been a reluctant partner in a war it had hoped would be brief and surgical. It is now increasingly plain that this will be neither, and the incident last week in which a U.S. Special Forces helicopter took ground fire near a base inside Pakistan highlighted the potential domestic crisis General Musharraf faces for offering his support. Not surprisingly, the general is urging the U.S. to end its bombing campaign by Ramadan. The same demand has been echoed at the opposite end of the region's political spectrum, by the Northern Alliance. And there is little doubt that if bombs are falling on Afghanistan during the Muslim holy month that begins on November 17, there will be a sharp uptick in anti-American anger around the Muslim world.
Watching the skies
There are meteorological concerns, too. The first winter snows are expected to more or less coincide with Ramadan, and famine relief groups such as Christian Aid, Oxfam and others working in Afghanistan have called for a pause in U.S. bombing in order to be able to deliver food to millions of vulnerable Afghanis before the snows make roads impassable. The U.S. and Britain have blamed the Taliban for impeding food distribution and Admiral Stufflebeem even warned Wednesday that the Taliban was planning to poison U.S. food aid packages and blame any resultant deaths on the donors. But as in the debate over Iraq sanctions, claims that the regime on the ground is the real author of its people's misery are likely to be trumped by heart-rending images of starving refugees and "collateral damaged" children. The longer the war on the Taliban takes, the greater the risk to the unity of the U.S. coalition. Moreover, reports of civilian casualties have enraged not only the Taliban, but also many anti-Taliban local leaders in southern Afghanistan.
That may account for the sense of urgency in this week's efforts by U.S. officials to spur the Northern Alliance to move on Taliban cities, and to encourage the formation of a southern front against the ruling militia. Still, nobody's expecting a speedy collapse of the regime that has hosted Osama Bin Laden. Which means that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen may have to proceed against the backdrop of an increasingly complex and messy war in Afghanistan.