Civilians Suffer in Afghan Guerilla War

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A six-year-old Afghan girl recovers from injuries caused by the bombing

The mistaken killing of up to 40 Afghan civilians by a U.S. warplane Monday is a lesson in the difficulties in rounding up the scattered remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda: The enemy has dispersed and taken shelter within the civilian population, in order to wage a guerrilla war against the U.S. and the government in Kabul. If that results in accidents in which U.S. forces kill civilians, the Taliban and al-Qaeda hope to use those incidents to build support for their cause in the local population. Thats the reason Monday's incident makes life difficult for the new government of President Hamid Karzai, whose power is in no small part tied to U.S. war effort. Karzai urged American forces to exercise greater caution, and his administration is reportedly pressing U.S. forces to revise their tactics in light of the heightened danger to civilians when air power is deployed against enemy forces sheltering among them.

U.S. officials are investigating the incident, which is now believed to have resulted when a U.S. gunship fired on an enemy anti-aircraft position in the village of Kakarak, and may have hit villagers attending a nearby wedding. The Pentagon said the U.S. plane had been called in to support U.S. and Afghan ground forces that had come under fire in the area. The incident occurred in Uruzgan province, near the ancestral home of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The U.S. has been particularly embarrassed by its failure to capture the peasant mystic-turned-insurgent since he is believed to have simply retreated into the mountains of the province. Some local reports suggested that Monday's tragedy could have come about during a renewed U.S. operation to capture the Taliban leader.

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And that may not be easy. Mullah Omar and his men are clearly able to move with ease in their home territory. Many Taliban fighters remain in the area, having melted into the civilian population last fall in the face of overwhelming U.S. military might. In last year's rout of the Taliban, most enemy fighters were neither killed nor captured; they simply dispersed. Many went back to their villages and signed up with local warlords engaged in longstanding turf battles. Others may have seen the onset of the U.S. offensive as the cue to revert to the guerrilla tactics their fathers had used so effectively against the Soviet invaders.

"The guerrilla fights the war of the flea," wrote Robert Taber in his 1965 textbook on (and for) guerilla warfare. "And his military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with." Not only that, the guerrillas take shelter in the civilian population, knowing that any "collateral damage" incidents will potentially alienate that civilian population from the guerrillas' enemies.

Since the Taliban fell, their forces along with al-Qaeda members have engaged in guerrilla actions aimed at harassing U.S. troops and local warlords aligned with the Kabul government. U.S. bases and patrols regularly come under fire; just last weekend 19 people were killed in the town of Spin Boldak after an ammunition depot used by a pro-Kabul warlord exploded under suspicious circumstances.

Rather than base their new guerrilla campaign on resurrecting their own mediaeval Islamist ideology, the Taliban survivors have attempted to rally new support along ethnic lines. Their propaganda appeals to Pashtun nationalism, accusing Karzai of being beholden to the Americans and the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. On that basis, they've sought to make common cause with former adversaries such as the notorious Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and local commanders once opposed to the Taliban.

The extent of the threat posed by the Taliban/al-Qaeda guerrilla campaign is difficult to gauge. But what is clear is that even though the peacekeeping mission has been formally taken over by Turkish forces, the ongoing guerrilla campaign continues to keep thousands of U.S. troops busy in Afghanistan more than six months after Karzai's transitional administration was first installed in Kabul. Clearly, the mission involves more than simply mopping up a few desperadoes. It looks likely to continue as long as Mullah Omar and his ilk are able to find support and succor among the locals.