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Errant U.S. Strikes Undermine Effort In Marjah

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has apologized to the Afghan government for U.S. military strikes that killed at least 39 civilians.
Manan Vatsyayana
AFP/Getty Images
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has apologized to the Afghan government for U.S. military strikes that killed at least 39 civilians.

Just more than a week into the biggest NATO assault in Afghanistan since 2001, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has apologized twice to the Afghan government for two American military attacks that have killed at least 39 civilians. McChrystal has ordered a review and investigation into the circumstances of each incident.

While an errant airstrike Sunday was not in the area of Marjah — the militant stronghold currently being targeted by a joint U.S.-Afghan army offensive — the mounting toll on civilians could undermine the effort to drive the Taliban from areas of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province and win the support of local villagers.

Winning Hearts And Minds


The incursion into the Marjah area may create a backlash against the U.S. among the ethnic Pashtuns who dominate the region, says Juan Cole, a Middle East historian and scholar.

The repeated killings of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable.

"The worst-case scenario is you get a lot of Pashtuns het up and angry about incursions into their territory," he said. "You never want to get the Pashtuns het up."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Cabinet reacted angrily to the airstrike Sunday that hit a convoy of vehicles near Khotal Chowzar, a mountain pass that connects Day Kundi province with Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan.

A NATO statement said that the airstrike targeted vehicles that were believed to be carrying suspected insurgents. The statement said that when ground forces reached the site of the attack, they found the dead civilians.


According to the Cabinet statement, four women and a child were among the 27 killed in the airstrike. Last week, a stray rocket in Marjah killed 12 civilians.

"The repeated killings of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable," the statement said. "We strongly condemn it."

'Clear, Build And Hold'

McChrystal has said the aim of the Marjah offensive was to "clear, build and hold" — a strategy that Gen. David Petraeus employed in Iraq to stem the wave of sectarian killings.

Combating the insurgency in Afghanistan is vastly different from the task the U.S. faced in Iraq, Cole says. In 2006, Iraq's Sunnis were being systematically killed and displaced by Shiite militias, backed by the Shiite majority government.

That's not happening to Afghanistan's Pashtuns, Cole says.

"The Pashtuns don't feel they've lost any wars," he said, adding that if a military operation results in the removal of the Taliban but replaces them with corrupt warlords, it would only make things worse.

"Karzai won the presidency by cozying up to the warlords, and he's beholden to them now, and he's been putting them and their cronies in important positions," says Cole. "From the Pashtuns' point of view, this is a worse situation."

NATO And The Afghan Army

When McChrystal took over last year as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, he promised to reduce the number of civilian casualties after a series of similar errant bombings. A total of 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed last year, the highest number in any year of the war, according to a U.N. report.

Further complicating the U.S. effort, the deadly airstrike Sunday took place in an area under Dutch military control.

A day earlier, the Dutch government collapsed over an effort to extend the mandate of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan. The 2,000 troops from the Netherlands may leave by the summer. The Australian and Canadian governments are also under public pressure to pull out.

And while the U.S. military and its allies continue to push forward, they wait for Afghan troops to catch up.

Several media reports from the field have cited the high illiteracy rate within the Afghan National Army, and an inability of some of its troops to read maps.

A report in The New York Times cited an American Marine unit whose members said they led every one of its engagements against the Taliban, organizing the Afghan forces, transporting them in American vehicles, and supplying them with weaponry and ammunition.

The Afghans' lack of preparedness raises questions about President Obama's declaration that American forces will hand over more responsibility to Afghan security forces as they work toward a target date to begin withdrawing in July 2011.

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