WASHINGTON — The time has clearly come to redefine US policy in Afghanistan. Afghan anger over civilian casualties is mounting, which feeds anti-American sentiment, undermines the pro-American interim government of Hamid Karzai, and erodes the goodwill the United States earned for ousting the repressive Taliban regime.
Even before the bloody battle near Gardez, where eight Americans have been killed, Afghan criticism of civilian casualties resulting from US-led bombing was increasing.
Now former King Zahir Shah, the country's most respected figure, has called the war "stupid and useless." Not knowing that a journalist was present, he told an Italian aid group that the war had caused him "immense pain" and "it would be better if it ended immediately. Now is the time for reconstruction."
No one is sure how many Afghan civilians have been killed in US military operations. A study by a University of New Hampshire economist, which pieces together reports of aid workers and journalists, found 3,742 civilian deaths during the first eight weeks of fighting, more than the 3,067 people killed on Sept. 11. A critique of this study by the Project for Defense Alternatives, allowing for possible exaggeration, suggested 1,300 dead.
At first, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed regret over "collateral damage," but now he no longer bothers to apologize. Conceding that 16 blameless civilians were killed in a raid north of Kandahar on Jan. 24, Mr. Rumsfeld said, "I don't think it is an error. It's just a fact that circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan are difficult. It's untidy. It is not a neat situation where all the good guys are here and the bad guys are there."
In the Gardez fighting, initial reports indicate that US forces faced a relatively clear-cut situation in which there was indeed a large concentration of "bad guys." But as Mr. Karzai observed, the Gardez area is "the last, isolated base of terrorists in Afghanistan." In their subsequent pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants, American forces are not likely to face such "neat" situations. Moreover, even at Gardez, a villager told The New York Times last week that "the American bombing has killed large numbers of civilians, something impossible to confirm or dismiss until the battle ends."
Given the inevitable civilian casualties, the repeated use of the type of indiscriminate US-led bombing assaults employed at Gardez in further operations would only intensify anti-American feeling. In Afghan eyes, it is one thing for the United States to kill Al Qaeda Arabs and quite another to kill Afghan Taliban fighters and their families who are hiding in the hills.
Paktia Gov. Taj Mohammed Wardak pointedly told The Washington Post that "there is a distinction between normal Taliban and hard-line Taliban with links to Al Qaeda."
The US should adopt a lower military profile in Afghanistan, relying primarily on US Air Force logistical and helicopter support to Afghan and allied ground troops, without bombing. More broadly, the US should focus on helping the Kabul regime consolidate control by providing troops and support for an expanded international peacekeeping force, pending the development of an Afghan national army, and should greatly step up economic reconstruction assistance. The Pentagon is helping Kabul create its own army, but without enough US training personnel or funding.
Despite increasingly urgent pleas from Karzai and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for US support of an expanded UN peacekeeping force, Rumsfeld has blocked such support. He argues that it would divert resources from US military operations.
But it is time to scale down these operations and shift from a unilateral to a multilateral role, anyway, to stop the political fallout from civilian casualties. As the Taliban threat recedes, the need for a US military role is declining. The new threat is chaos.
The US says it wants Karzai to succeed. But in addition to blocking expansion of the peacekeeping force, the Pentagon has also inadvertently undermined the new regime by pouring arms and money into the hands of warlords who are now strong enough to resist Karzai's authority.
The US should avoid policies that strengthen local warlords at Karzai's expense. It should also avoid the other extreme of intervening militarily against Karzai's rivals, even if he requests it. "Mission creep" was exemplified on Feb. 17, when the Air Force staged two bombing raids near Khost to crush an anti-Karzai militia. Later, a White House aide signaled that the US might set up military advisory units around the country empowered to call in bombers to enforce the peace.
Afghanistan needs a stable central authority to prevent the country from turning once again into a base for terrorism, to curb the narcotics trade, and to rebuild the economy. Washington should do what it can to promote these goals.
But there are limits to what the US can and should do. History suggests it will take many years, even with sustained international support, for Afghanistan to put itself together again.
Continuing civilian casualties and direct US military intervention in Afghan civil conflicts will only add to the resentments now festering after the "collateral damage" already inflicted.
This, in turn, will further undermine the goodwill earned by the US for ousting the Taliban and strengthen the Islamic extremist forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan that gave rise to the Taliban in the first place.
Selig S. Harrison is the author of 'Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal' and 'In Afghanistan's Shadow.' He is director of the National Security Project at the Center for International Policy.