Is NATO Losing the Real Battle in Afghanistan?

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Villagers walk next to their livestock killed during a NATO warplane attack Tuesday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

In the vineyards and poppy fields of southern Afghanistan it is hard to know who the enemy is. In their black turbans, Taliban fighters can vanish like ghosts into the local population, leaving NATO soldiers shooting into thin air, or worse still at the wrong targets — which is what happened this week as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan came to a close.

Afghan officials said dozens of civilians were killed late Tuesday when NATO warplanes bombarded a village in the district of Panjwai just 20 kilometers outside the largest city in southern Afghanistan, the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Panjwai district has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Afghan south this summer, with NATO killing at least 500 suspected insurgents in the two-week-long Operation Medusa, which concluded last month.

Control of Panjwai, which lies so close to the political heart of the Afghan south, is vital, and it seems NATO's hold on the district is slipping. Lieutenant General David Richards called Operation Medusa a "significant success," but weeks later the Taliban have come back with a vengeance, staging large-scale attacks on NATO bases in the area and scotching NATO claims that they had driven the Taliban out of Panjwai.

Taliban fighters launched a series of bloody attacks on NATO troops late on Tuesday night, the second day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, and NATO struck back, bombing houses where Taliban fighters had taken refuge. Eyewitnesses in the village of Zangwat said that 25 houses had been razed to the ground, and their inhabitants killed and injured as Taliban fighters took shelter behind their walls, using the local population as human shields. Niaz Mohammad Saradi, district governor of Panjwai district, said 60 people were killed, while other officials put the death toll as high as 85. NATO says it has confirmed 12 civilian casualties. Whatever the final number, the mounting bloodshed among old men, women and children in southern Afghanistan is whittling away support for the NATO mission.

Akbar Khakrizwal, a tribal elder and former security official in Kandahar city, said the Taliban are gaining strength in Panjwai on a daily basis. "For more than four months NATO has been fighting in Panjwai district, " he said, "and they cannot drive 500 Taliban away, or kill them or arrest them. They have the wrong strategy." He contended that NATO troops are playing into the hands of the Taliban. "NATO are very impatient when the Taliban attack them from a residential area and they reply by bombing, and that is what the Taliban want. They want to make NATO look bad."

Sam Zarifi, of Human Rights Watch in New York City, said NATO's military offensive, which has relied heavily on airpower due to a shortage of ground troops, had caused serious resentment among Afghans and been counterproductive. "The Soviets tried and failed to defeat Afghan guerrillas by using massive firepower, so we know clearly that that is not the way to win in Afghanistan," he said. "You have to win the populace over, not kill it." But NATO spokesman Mark Laity defended NATO's strategy in the south, saying it was important that NATO showed they could win militarily against the Taliban. "We have shown that in combat terms we can be the winning side," he said, adding that now reconstruction and development would have to follow.

After over two decades of vicious fighting, most ordinary Afghans in the south are willing to give NATO a chance. But if the alliance is to prevail, it will probably need to reexamine its strategy. "At the moment there is very little public support for NATO, but it is not the end of the world," said Haji Abdul Khaliq, a senator in neighbouring Uruzgan province. "If NATO wants cooperation from people they should change their strategy and stop fighting and build roads and schools."