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US takes losses in Afghanistan, as fighting shows the war is far from over

Zia Sarhadi

As the fighting on March 2 in the Arma mountains showed, the war in Afghanistan is far from over. On March 4th, the Pentagon admitted that eight American soldiers had been killed and 50 injured in the latest US offensive. Puffed up by their own propaganda, the Americans sent their troops into combat for the first time since the assault on Afghanistan began. But they retreated quickly and left the ground fighting to their Afghan mercenaries.

After suffering heavy losses in three days of fighting, on March 5 the Americans ordered their bombers to 'soften' the fighters, who have taken up positions high in the mountains. On March 2 US forces also dropped a new 'thermobaric' bomb on the cave and tunnel complex in the area, according to Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke. The bomb is designed to suck the oxygen out of a cave or underground shelter, suffocating its occupants. Perhaps it does, but the Americans suffered their worst casualties the very next day.

Despite the media hype, the US has not achieved any of its objectives in Afghanistan. Washington had set itself four goals, although not all were spelled out publicly: to capture Usama bin Ladin dead or alive; get Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, dead or alive; overthrow the Taliban regime; and build a pipeline through Afghanistan for Caspian Sea gas and oil. The last requires a degree of stability in Afghanistan, and it is the main reason that America launched its war. The US has achieved only one objective, and that only partially: removal of the Taliban. Their power-base has not been completely destroyed and Karzai has not been able to extend his writ beyond Kabul. Even there his hold on power is tenuous: he remains effectively a prisoner of the Tajik Northern Alliance forces.

There are other problems as well. Internal rivalries are already resurfacing within the loose coalition. Karzai's position is also undermined by the manner in which the Americans are going about buying the loyalty of some warlords. Much of the money promised for Afghanistan's reconstruction is not forthcoming; what little has trickled in, Karzai and his family and friends have begun to enjoy. This is a recipe for disaster, especially when some five million people are about to starve.

Equally telling is the fact that Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan are in no hurry to return. There is little or nothing to return to, except to be robbed and raped as warlords prowl the ravaged country. The Taliban are already missed because, whatever their faults, they at least provided a measure of safety and security.

As the law and order situation deteriorates, resistance to the American occupation is likely to intensify. Traditionally the Afghans lie low in winter. Once spring comes, however, they resume fighting. There is more reason now: their country is occupied. And the al-Qaeda fighters have not all disappeared, as the regrouping in the Arma Mountains around Gardez shows. It is also interesting to note that the Pentagon claims to have killed between 400 and 700 al-Qaeda fighters by March 7. One wonders how they arrived at this figure (also, if it is reasonably accurate, how it can be so high): in the case of civilian casualties, the Americans have dismissed others' figures, saying that they have not been verified, and pleading their own inability to verify them because of lack of access.

There may well be support for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the tribal area of Pakistan, virtually a no-man=s-land where tribal custom, not Pakistani law, rules. Taj Muhammad Wardak, governor of Paktia province, where the current fighting is, alleged on March 5 that al-Qaeda forces were receiving fresh supplies of men and equipment from supporters in the tribal areas of Pakistan. “The Americans...believed that there were not that many people and they did not realize how well they were supplied,” Wardak claimed.

Wardak may be trying to secure more money from the Americans by exaggerating the size of the resistance force, but it is clear that many warlords cannot be relied upon. They have their own agenda; often it is to make money and to settle scores. The frequent American attacks on forces friendly to the interim government are the direct result of such vendettas by the warlords, who pass false or incomplete information to them. The trigger-happy Americans have no scruples about killing first and asking questions later, as happened on December 20: 65 tribal elders from Paktia were killed in an air strike on their way to Karzai's investiture. Similarly, on January 24, Karzai loyalists were attacked in Hadar Qadam as they slept in an abandoned school; 25 of them were killed and 27 arrested. The 27 were beaten and tortured for three weeks before being released.

Such practices can hardly be expected to endear the Americans to the Afghans.

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