The following report for The Guardian, published today, looks at the recent meetings between the Presidents of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington D.C. and the risks to civilians caught up in the war with the Taliban. It was reprinted in The Khaleej Times on May 12, 2009.
‘Collateral damage’ in AfPak hurts the US too
The bombardment of civilians in Afghanistan undermines the security credentials of western forces in the region
o Mustafa Qadri
o guardian.co.uk, Friday 8 May 2009 16.30 BST
The timing may have been a disaster for Washington, but for villagers in Afghanistan’s south it was far worse. A day after a US bombing killed up to 120 civilians in Afghanistan’s southern Farah province, President Obama asked the visiting presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, to step up their attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, expressed “personal regret” for the loss of lives as she looked in the direction of Karzai who, along with Zardari, addressed the media in the White House last Wednesday.
But in Afghanistan there were howls of condemnation and protests.
Bodies were being piled into trucks near the Bala Boluk district in Farah where the bombing occurred. If estimates of more than a hundred fatalities prove accurate, it will represent the greatest loss of life in a single day since the US invasion of Afghanistan commenced in October 2001.
Casualties are inevitable in any war. But, as with Iraq since 1990, it seems those directing the conflict from western capitals are not the ones whose societies are bearing the greatest losses. That price is paid by ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis.
According to US airforce figures, 438 bombs were dropped over Afghanistan by American planes last April – a record number.
Last year was the worst for civilians caught up in the war against the Taliban that started in 2001. According to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, 3,917 civilians were killed, more than 6,800 wounded and 120,000 were forced to leave their homes.
In neighbouring Pakistan, the conflict has proved a humanitarian catastrophe for villagers along the tribal belt that hugs the Durand line and the lower Himalayas in the north-west. It is estimated that up to a million have been displaced by the conflict with the Taliban in Pakistan, while unknown thousands of civilians have been killed. Pilotless US aircraft have killed around 700 of them. Only a handful of those – around 14 – were militant leaders.
For years now Afghan officials have been asking American forces to take greater care in their operations to prevent civilian casualties. Their Pakistani counterparts have constantly warned against military operations which, by harming so many civilians, stoke greater support for the Taliban.
“Afghans are human beings, too,” President Karzai remarked at a media conference two years ago. That applies equally to Pakistanis caught in the conflict, but the fact is often lost in the heady rhetoric about defeating extremism and keeping our western borders secure from terrorism.
As usual, US officials announced an investigation into the Farah bombing. Whether it will lead to a demonstrable reduction in civilian casualties is uncertain. US military officials were quick to claim that the bombing was called in by Afghan National Army forces and could not be compared to the devastating aerial attack in Azizabad that claimed 90 civilian lives last August. The US had earlier said that a handful of Taliban fighters had been killed during the raid, only to later acknowledge that civilians had died, albeit far fewer than the 90 claimed by the Afghan government and an independent UN investigation.
In the meantime, the war talk has reached fever pitch. Despite calls for increased non-military aid aimed at improving socioeconomic conditions in areas most at risk of Taliban infiltration, the key thrust will be massive military operations by US and Pakistan forces.
In Congress last week, US defence secretary Robert Gates requested $400m for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund aimed at training and arming Pakistani soldiers. The fund is effectively Centcom commander David Petraeus’s money tin and would give the general a freer hand in directing operations by Pakistani forces.
A further $1bn in immediate or military aid has been proposed for Pakistan from a pool of requested “emergency” funds.
The Obama administration has praised Pakistan’s recent return to military operations against the Taliban. The army is presently engaged in massive operations in the north-west of the country where militants had infiltrated into the Buner valley, a few hours’ drive west of the capital Islamabad, and Dir, further west towards the Afghan border.
In Dir, like Kohat and Dera Adam Khel to the south, districts to which I travelled recently, popular support for the Taliban is high thanks to ethnic loyalties and simmering resentment over inequality and civilian casualties. The Taliban derive mostly from the Pashtun communities indigenous to Pakistan’s tribal areas, but non-Pashtun recruits, particularly from poor rural communities in southern and western Punjab, are believed to be increasing.
Fighting has recommenced in the Swat valley after Taliban militants who spilled out into neighbouring districts – like Buner and Dir – failed to abide by the terms of a recent peace agreement between the provincial government and a local pro-Taliban religious movement.
The situation is precarious for “AfPak”. To avoid international isolation, governments from the two nations must continue the American agenda of overwhelming military response to the Taliban problem. But as these operations continue to claim lives, support for the Taliban can be expected to grow.
For Obama and his western allies in the region, failure to bring stability could have serious political consequences. The consequences for ordinary civilians, however, are already far more dire.