Setbacks in war against Taliban

Week 4 of US strikes arrives amid mounting civilian toll and death of a rebel commander.

Abdul Wali and his anti-Taliban neighbors spent yesterday sweeping up the debris of two shattered homes. An American bomb demolished their mud-and-timber houses Saturday, killing two women who were inside sewing at the time.

The ruins of Mr. Wali's house - three miles from the Taliban front lines - are a sad monument to a weekend of missteps and setbacks in America's three-week-old war in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials and Northern Alliance commanders are increasingly saying that US air power isn't enough to turn the military - or political - tide against the Taliban.

• On Friday, Taliban forces caught and executed a key rebel commander. The death of Abdul Haq - and the capture of his list of names of Taliban moderates and contacts - is considered a major blow to creating a political alternative to the Taliban.

• On Saturday, the US responded to rebel calls for heavier bombing raids. In contrast to previous attacks, the US hit the front line near Kabul continuously for more than six hours, dropping bombs on some targets five or six times each. But not every bomb found its mark. And as growing numbers of American munitions go astray - either misfired, mistargeted, or mistakenly dropped on civilians or relief agencies - support for the US campaign risks being undermined.

So far, Afghans on this side of the front line - where two anti-Taliban villages were struck separately Saturday, causing at least three deaths - say the bombing should continue.

"America is a superpower, and they should only bomb Taliban targets," says Wali, covered with dust from the clean-up operation. "They made a mistake. We will forgive them this first time. But if they do it again, they are our enemy."

The blasts that shocked civilians in these villages are not the only ones to go awry. US planes, for example, dropped eight tons of bombs on warehouses of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul last Thursday - the second time in a month they were struck by American bombs. Red Cross officials called it "astounding" that the depots, packed with blankets and food, clearly marked with red crosses on the roof, could be hit again.

Also on Thursday, a United Nations building that shelters German shepherd dogs that sniff out land mines was hit, killing two dogs. Some senior UN and relief officials have called for a halt to the bombing to allow aid to reach needy Afghans as winter begins to set in.

Such mistakes make it difficult for Washington to keep the public focus on getting the accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and his network in Afghanistan. They also highlight the limits of air power, just as mounting civilian casualties posed political problems during the sustained US-led air campaign against Serbia in 1999.

"It's a race against time," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a retired commander in the Pakistan Army and now a defense analyst in Islamabad. "The Americans want to prolong the war so that they can achieve their goals. But there are ripple effects here in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, as civilian casualties increase and as Ramadan approaches, opposition to the war can increase."

He adds that "you have to give the Americans some credit. They have succeeded in creating chaos for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and there is hardly any government left in Afghanistan. But the people don't see any alternative yet, to look to or to change sides. There has to be some success, either militarily or politically, in the next few weeks in order for people to think of changing sides."

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has called for 72 hours of worldwide protests by Muslims "who feel that holy war is part of Islam."

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, a critical ally in the US effort, said Friday that the US should switch to a "political strategy," due to concern "at all the civilian casualties" and the "miseries" Afghans are being put through.

But the political strategy is also in trouble. Privately, Pakistani officials and observers say the past three weeks have shown America's key weaknesses - the lack of hard intelligence, a cultural understanding, or knowledge of the conditions on the ground. In the eastern mountains, where the bulk of Afghanistan's population lives, guerrilla warriors have the advantage and the Taliban could conduct hit-and-run attacks long after their government falls. In order to defeat the Taliban in these conditions, the US would need to have the firm support of local populations. To gain that support, particularly among the ethnic Pashtun tribal leaders who are reported to be wavering in their support of the Taliban, America would need to offer something in return, especially the promise of continued safety from revenge attacks by pro-Taliban forces.

It is for this reason that the capture of top anti-Taliban leader Mr. Haq last week is such a public relations disaster. Haq, a member of the Pashtun ethnic majority and hero of the mujahideen war against the Soviets, returned to his native Afghanistan. Some relatives say he was on a "peace mission," while others say he had gone to Afghanistan to avenge the murders of his wife and daughter last year, in an attack attributed to Taliban supporters.

Abdul Qadir, a leader in the opposition-held town of Golbahar, says he was "surprised" that his brother had moved so quickly into Afghanistan, and had pleaded with him to delay his trip. He wanted them to enter their respective tribal areas together, to win over wavering Pashtuns from the Taliban.

"He could have mustered 2,000 or 3,000 warriors, but he came with only 25," Qadir says. "He was on a mission of peace, not to fight."

The Taliban, for their part, say Haq had come to launch an anti-Taliban rebellion in his home province of Nangrahar. Tipped off by their intelligence network along the border, the Taliban captured Haq within hours of his arrival and executed him that very day.

In addition, the Taliban claim they have Haq's list of names and phone numbers of tribal leaders and other Afghans presumed to be ready to join a post-Taliban government - including possibly members of the Taliban government. If true, more executions are likely to follow, and the American effort to create a broad-based government of Afghans will have suffered a devastating blow.

"Setback is an understatement. This is a fiasco, a debacle," says Rifaat Hussein, chairman of the Defense and Strategic Studies department at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad. "In a way, this destroys the whole idea that if you engage with the Taliban, and play ball with them, you can find some moderate elements that you can work with. Now, short of the physical destruction of Afghanistan, there is no way to achieve the goals."

In this way, Haq's execution could be a turning point in the war, Hussein says, as the political option of negotiation and nation-building are set aside and the military option becomes the only viable option. But dropping the political option altogether may have massive repercussions in Pakistan, he adds.

"The hawks will say that without a full-scale military effort, there is no way to remove the Taliban," Hussein says. "But here in Pakistan, people say the military option hasn't produced any results after three weeks and the political option should move faster. With Haq's execution, this will definitely deter those who are thinking of leaving the Taliban," he says.

On Sunday, it was as if the Pentagon were reassessing their strategy in adherence to the old Chinese maxim: "No military plan survives contact with the enemy." It was eerily quiet across the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. Only one reconnaissance plane flew across the sky, residents of Raqi said, at six o'clock in the morning.

But even as people here buried their dead, picked through the debris for belongings, and began to rebuild their lives yesterday, they said they favored US military action - with more accuracy.

"They should know which village is Northern Alliance, and which village is Taliban, says Shahbuddin, who lives 100 yards away from the blast site. "The bombings should continue. But they should take time to show pilots which village is which."

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