At least 90 people were killed in Afghanistan Friday when NATO planes bombed two fuel trucks that had been hijacked by Taliban fighters. The high-profile attack and resulting fireball, which NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said may have killed civilians, could instantly deplete any Afghan goodwill the military alliance has built up since limiting airstrikes earlier this summer.
"One operation can ruin the entire positive image of NATO," says Waliullah Rahmani, head of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. "I think it's not currently visible to Aghans that NATO has decreased civilian casualties."
Civilian casualties from airstrikes have eroded Afghan support for international forces, prompting the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, to order in late June that airstrikes be used only in "very limited" scenarios.
The new policy came as casualties were already trending down. According to the United Nations, 200 civilians were killed in airstrikes between January and June of 2009, compared with 552 civilians during the same period of 2008. Now, says Mr. Rasmussen, civilian casualties caused by international forces are down more than 95 percent from last year's levels.
NATO could do a better job advertising its efforts among Afghans, says Mr. Rahmani.
"This message should be received by every Afghan," says Rahmani. That said, NATO needs to build up a longer track record. "I do think it is very soon to talk about Afghan public perception regarding decrease of civilian casualties," he adds.
Taliban: Trucks carried fuel for NATO
After major airstrikes, accounts often conflict about just who was killed, with locals claiming more civilian dead than NATO. Already, reports from Kunduz indicate that dozens of civilians may have been in the vicinity siphoning fuel from the trucks at the time of the strike.
The Taliban-hijacked trucks, which the militants claimed carried fuel from Tajikistan to supply NATO in Kabul, reportedly got stuck in mud – attracting residents looking to carry home some of the fuel.
Security in northern Afghanistan has eroded this year as NATO has relied more heavily on northern supply lines from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Militants in Pakistan have rendered the supply route through the Khyber Pass far more risky, with multiple attacks on trucks heading up toward Afghanistan from the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar.
Trucks coming from Peshawar have encountered problems inside Afghanistan, too, as narrow mountain gorges line some of the route to Kabul. Patches of the recently paved road bear scars from the explosions caused when insurgents hit trucks from the hills above.
Afghan police can't maintain military gains
For years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, northern Afghanistan enjoyed relative peace and security. The situation has worsened for several reasons, according to an Afghan National Army (ANA) commander in the region.
One is certainly Russia's increased willingness to allow NATO supplies to transit through its territory en route to northern Afghanistan. The militants are drawn to the additional targets, but they are also finding local support.
"The situation in Kunduz is not much of a military problem, but it's a political problem that involves the distrust of the people in the government," says Col. Abdul Ahad, the ANA operational officer for the North.
Military gains made there are quickly undermined by the handoff to civilian forces.
"We have been in one area many times and when we go to the area the people respect us and sometimes they complain of the police to us," he said in an interview last month. "When the police go to the area, in a couple of days it gets worse."