War and resistance

Print edition : March 30, 2002

During Operation Anaconda, U.S. soldiers on their way to an air assault on Sirkankil, Afghanistan, on March 2.-ZINN WARREN/GAMMA

The heavy-handed U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan proceeds on its weary course, but the military achievements have clearly fallen short of the targets.


THE recent spurt in the extent and furiousness of the fighting in eastern Afghanistan shows that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda forces continue to be active. In early March, the Pentagon had announced that this time it would not allow the enemy fighters to escape. But the American forces were taken by surprise when they were ambushed by enemy forces in the Sah-i-Khot valley near the city of Gardez in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Earlier, the American military had launched "Operation Anaconda" with much fanfare to trap what the Pentagon described as Al Qaeda and non-Taliban fighters.


The ambush resulted in the downing of an MH-47 army transport helicopter and damage to another. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed in the incident, the highest number killed in one battle since two American helicopters were downed in Mogadishu in 1993 by Somali rebels opposed to the U.S. presence there. That incident had led to the precipitate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia.

"Operation Anaconda" lasted 12 days, during which period seven more U.S. soldiers lost their lives. For the first time, helicopter gunships were used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Pentagon claimed that "Anaconda" was a grand military success. The U.S. military announced that more than 700 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were killed and claimed that their command and control structure in Shah-e-Kot had been destroyed. But all that reporters were shown were three unmarked graves near the site of the fighting. From all indications, the militants made yet another escape, similar to the one in Tora Bora.

In the third week of March, the interim government in Kabul announced that large numbers of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were regrouping across southern Afghanistan. The government had mobilised more troops for deployment in these regions, heightening fears that fresh fighting might break out across the country. The government troops mostly comprise Tajiks, who are disliked in the Pashtun-dominated south.

Now, the U.S. acknowledges that its military offensive in the Tora Bora mountain ranges failed to eliminate or capture the members of the Taliban or the Al Qaeda leadership. The Pentagon has admitted that thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, including possibly Osama bin Laden, escaped the heavy bombardment that lasted several weeks. American forces used missiles and even lethal "Daisy Cutter" bombs in an attempt to smoke the militants out of their caves. In February, a Hellfire missile was fired at three men, one of whom was strikingly tall. American intelligence presumed that the tall man was Osama bin Laden. However, the three turned out to be poor Afghans who had been scrounging for scrap metal. They were blown to pieces.

During the past three months, there have been sporadic guerilla attacks on American and allied troops. The U.S. response, as usual, was heavy-handed. In Madoo village American missiles killed at least 50 civilians. In January, U.S. Commandos killed 21 people, who were labelled as Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. They happened to be loyalists of the interim President, Ahmad Karzai. It was only after Karzai protested that the Americans ordered an enquiry.

However, the U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismisses reports of massive civilian casualties as "enemy propaganda". Several senior Bush administration officials reluctantly concede that some "collateral damage" could have taken place. A Pentagon spokesman admitted that it was difficult to distinguish between friend and foe in Afghanistan; "People are on multiple sides and they switch sides".

The spectre of urban guerilla warfare is looming over the American forces as Islamists and disgruntled elements slowly regroup. A major preoccupation of the 4,000-strong American troops seems to be to shore up the authority of the interim Afghan President. In February, American aircraft dropped precision guided bombs near the southeastern city of Khost, where militias opposed to Karzai were holed up.

The killing of Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman in February is another indication of the uncertain political climate in Kabul. Rahman like Karzai was a royalist who wanted former King Zahir Shah to return to active politics. Karzai had characterised the killing of Rahman as the outcome of a "political conspiracy". But many of the so-called warlords are already running big cities like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif as virtually independent fiefs, while others profit from the chaos wrought by American military intervention.

At a refugee camp in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan in February.-CLARO CORTES/REUTERS

The U.S. launched its war in October, at the beginning of the poppy cultivation season. The ousted Taliban government had successfully implemented its pledge to the international community to stop the production of opium. But once again, areas under the control of the warlords are involved in the lucrative opium business. However, the U.S. seems to be unconcerned as it does not involve the Taliban or the Al Qaeda and because the illegal trade in narcotics mainly impacts on countries such as Iran.

It is easier for Karzai to undertake international travel than to travel within Afghanistan. There is hardly any serious attempt under way to raise an independent and professional army for Afghanistan. Experts say that if the interim government wishes to extend its authority beyond Kabul, the government needs a fighting force of at least 60,000 troops. The international community too has not bothered to earmark funds for this. At the international donors' conferences held in Berlin and Tokyo recently, large amounts of money was pledged for the reconstruction of Afghanistan but none for security.

Human rights groups in the U.S. have put estimates of civilian deaths among Afghans since October 2001 between 4,000 and possibly 8,000, with an additional 3,000 people dying of hunger and cold as they fled the relentless American bombing. They plan to send teams to Afghanistan to investigate the scale of the American military attacks on civilian targets and the allegations of excessive and illegitimate use of force by the U.S. military. The U.S. Air Force is estimated to have dropped a huge number of cluster-bombs. Such bombs were responsible for a large number of civilian casualties in the Gulf War and the war against Yugoslavia. Each cluster bomb sprays more than 200 bomblets, the size of a small bottle. Human rights organisations say that there are at least 36,000 unexploded bomblets strewn across Afghanistan today.

THE first signs of dissent in the U.S. over the Bush administration's military campaign are meanwhile visible. The failure to capture bin Laden or Mullah Omar has seriously dented the Bush administration's claim of a famous military victory in Afghanistan. The U.S. Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, recently said that if neither Omar or Osama were captured, "we will have failed". Critics had warned the Bush administration that going to war against the Taliban would not dismantle the Al Qaeda's global network and that casualties among Afghan civilians would be high.

The number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan seems to have exceeded that of those killed in the carnage in New York and Washington on September 11. Recently, the Central Intelligence Agency Director, George Tent, admitted that the Al Qaeda continues to have cells in more than 59 countries. Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich said that the U.S. President was not authorised to declare war (Operation Enduring Freedom) against the world without limit or reason: "We did not ask that the blood of the innocent people, who perished on September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan."

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