Civilian Deaths Undermine Allies’ War on Taliban
By CARLOTTA GALL and DAVID E. SANGER
ZERKOH, Afghanistan, May 9 — Scores of civilian deaths over the past months from heavy American and allied reliance on airstrikes to battle Taliban insurgents are threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance.
Afghan, American and other foreign officials say they worry about the political toll the civilian deaths are exacting on President Hamid Karzai, who last week issued another harsh condemnation of the American and NATO tactics, and even of the entire international effort here.
What angers Afghans are not just the bombings, but also the raids of homes, the shootings of civilians in the streets and at checkpoints, and the failure to address those issues over the five years of war. Afghan patience is wearing dangerously thin, officials warn.
The civilian deaths are also exposing tensions between American commanders and commanders from other NATO countries, who have never fully agreed on the strategy to fight the war here, in a country where there are no clear battle lines between civilians and Taliban insurgents.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, military commanders and diplomats alike fear that divisions within the coalition and the loss of support among Afghans could undermine what until now was considered a successful spring, one in which NATO launched a broad offensive but the Taliban did not.
“There is absolutely no question that the will and support of the Afghan people is vitally important to what we do here,” Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the American commander of the International Security Assistance Force, said in an interview. “We are their guests, they are the hosts. We have to be mindful of their culture, we have to operate in the context of their culture, and we have to take every possible precaution to not cause undue risk to those around us, and to their property.”
But American officials say that they have been forced to use air power more intensively as they have spread their reach throughout Afghanistan, raiding Taliban strongholds that had gone untouched for six years. One senior NATO official said that “without air, we’d need hundreds of thousands of troops” in the country. They also contend that the key to reducing casualties is training more Afghan Army soldiers and police officers.
The anger is visible here in this farming village in the largely peaceful western province of Herat, where American airstrikes left 57 villagers dead, nearly half of them women and children, on April 27 and 29 ... full text