A callous assault

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Another American air raid in Afghanistan leaves a number of people dead in a decrepit village.

IN yet another instance of callousness, the American military forces operating in Afghanistan, bombed on July 1 a village in the southern province of Oruzgan in the Kandahar region. The villagers were celebrating a wedding, firing in the air to mark the occasion, as is the tradition in several parts of Asia, including India. After a couple of days, the United States admitted reluctantly that it was one of its bombs that was responsible for the carnage in which possibly scores of civilian lives were lost and more than 100 persons were injured, many of them women and children.

According to the U.S. military, its plane most probably dropped a 1,000-kg bomb on the village. According to the residents of the village, air assault lasted around three hours. At the time of the incident, U.S. special forces were conducting operations in the area. The U.S. initially denied that killings on such a big scale had taken place. Only when the facts became indisputable and Afghans on the streets of Kabul started expressing their anti-American sentiments openly did the U.S. acknowledge that its forces were involved in the attack on the non-descript village of mud houses.

Abdul Qadir, Afghan Vice-President who was assassinated in Kabul.-JOHN MACDOUGALL/ AFP

This is the second such incident in Oruzgan. U.S. Special Forces had killed 21 villagers in an air raid in January. The U.S. suspects that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is still hiding in the region. Kandahar was the Taliban stronghold and the group continues to enjoy the sympathy and support of the local people. Mullah Omar grew up in the area. U.S. military intelligence had also apparently got some information that Osama bin Laden was also hiding in the area.

Anyway the Bush administration's doctrine post-September 11 has been to shoot first and ask questions later. American B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships were deployed in the area during the July 1 bombing. The U.S. military has set up an internal court of inquiry. Afghans allege that this is a U.S. ploy to prevent the truth from surfacing. In June, some Canadian soldiers were killed by "friendly" U.S. fire in Afghanistan. The incident had led to demands in Canada for a reappraisal of the country's troop deployment in Afghanistan.

During the swearing-in of the first interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai in Kabul, a convoy of government supporters heading for the capital was attacked by U.S. planes. The U.S. military is yet to apologise for the crime; it insists that those targeted belonged to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This time too, U.S. officials insist that senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders were holed up in the village. Washington has also disputed the death roll put out by Afghan officials. It says that only five graves were found and only 11 people were injured. President Karzai, on the other hand, has said that "approximately 46 individuals of the country have been martyred and nearly 130 have been wounded. We have been severely shocked by this incident".

It is estimated that ever since the U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban and the Al Qaeda forces began last year, tens of thousands of people have been killed, mostly in air attacks, the preferred U.S. way of fighting wars since the early 1990s. Many experts in the region believe that the remnants of Al Qaeda have fled to Pakistan or dispersed to other parts of the world. A report emanating from the U.S. State Department, which was published in American newspapers, has concluded that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan not only "failed to diminish the threat to the United States" but actually complicated its anti-terrorism drive.

The report said that Al Qaeda's strength had been grossly exaggerated by the Bush administration, which put the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan between 5,000 and 20,000. According to the report, there were only 300 to 500 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion. The 12,000 U.S.-British-Canadian-Turkish troops currently operating in Afghanistan may in fact be hunting for a phantom enemy.

President Bush, while not formally apologising for the latest round of civilian deaths, did however express his sympathies over what the White House described as a "tragedy". This is the strongest expression of regret from the U.S. government so far for civilian casualties caused by American bombs. Bush's comforting words have not been apparently able to stem the rising tide of anti-Americanism. For the first time, Kabul saw anti-American demonstrations.

A diplomat, who was recently in Kabul, said that the anti American sentiments among the populace was palpable. Ordinary Afghans told the diplomat that the U.S. and its allies were being tolerated for the promised flow of dollars and developmental aid. The international community has pledged $2.4 billion for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Very little of it has materialised so far. The U.S. government is said to have spent a hefty sum of money to bribe, cajole and pressure the fractious Afghan warlords during the Loya Jirga to instal Karzai as President.

The Loya Jirga held in June, instead of hastening the reconciliation process, seems to have widened the fractures within Afghan society. The assassination of Vice-President Abdul Qadir in broad daylight in Kabul on July 6, is a sign of this growing divide and looming anarchy. Qadir was appointed to the post after the Loya Jirga, which was stage-managed by the U.S. for the benefit of the Northern Alliance and the discredited warlords.

Still wearing her party dress, Palako, 6, sleeps in a hospital bed in Kandahar, where she is recovering from wounds received when U.S. helicopter gunships and jets attacked a house where wedding celebrations were under way on July 1.-CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/ AP

Qadir himself was a powerful warlord who established his reputation as a fighter in the war against the progressive Afghan government in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the elder brother of Abdul Haq, the Bush administration's original choice to head the transitional government in Afghanistan. Haq was killed while engaged in a U.S.-supported covert operation against the Taliban before the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan started last year. The Taliban executed him in October last.

The brothers had their base in the eastern province of Nangahar and were among the first Pashtun warlords to ally themselves with the Northern Alliance. Nangahar was the first base for Osama bin Laden when he stepped into Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Qadir was among the first to welcome him into Afghanistan. Qadir was counted among the richest warlords. Barring a brief lull during the Taliban interregnum, he had profited enormously from the general anarchy and lawlessness that prevailed during the Mujahideen rule. He had the distinction of setting up his own private airline company. The planes were mainly used to ferry goods from Dubai to be smuggled into Pakistan. He was one of the lynchpins of the U.S. military and political strategy in Afghanistan.

The head of security in the Afghan Interior Ministry, Gen. Deen Muhammad Jurat, said that persons responsible for the killing of Qadir were "enemies of the government and members of Al Qaeda". At the same time, he said that Qadir's personal guards were involved in the killing. President Bush was quick to condemn the killing. He said that Qadir's death had strengthened the U.S. resolve to bring stability to the war-torn country. This is the second murder of a senior Afghan government leader. In February, Tourism Minister Abdul Rahman was killed at Kabul airport. No satisfactory explanation has been available for that killing either.

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