As the first decade of the 2st century has amply demonstrated, war remains an encountered in which those who command are often confronted with conflicted information -- or even any information – on which to act.
Clearly, on the night of September 4, the 12-24 Taliban fighters had completely misread the tractability of the ground at the fording site on the Kunduz River. On finding that the site was so muddy as to be unusable for heavy vehicles – in this case two fully filled fuel tankers – some of the armed insurgents reportedly forced many residents from two villages near the river site to try to pull the second tanker free of the mud. When this effort failed, in a last attempt to salvage some of their prize, the insurgents invited the villagers to take fuel at no cost, thereby reducing the weight enough to free the mired tanker. Apparently, none of the insurgents considered the likelihood that NATO was watching their activity at the river – and deciding what to do.
Four miles away, the German commander, Colonel Georg Klein, decided that the Taliban would have two highly flammable truck bombs to use against his men or against Afghani security forces. He requested the F-15 warplanes strike the ford with satellite guided bombs. Thirty minutes later, at about 2:00 in the morning, the river site exploded in what surviving observers termed as two mushroom fireballs.
Few of the estimated 100 moving “blips” – each representing a human being – that the German surveillance radar operators were monitoring before the strike were still moving after the two satellite-guided 500 pound bombs exploded. The Germans, fearing the anger of the local residents caused by the high fatalities, deferred going to the bomb site until well into late afternoon. One of the recently created NATO inspection teams charged by General McChrystal to investigate incidents that kill civilian fatalities did not arrive for another 24 hours. President Karzai called for another joint NATO-Afghani investigation, but by then, many of the dead were already buried.
As expected, the outcome of this investigation mirrored every earlier finding. No one associated with the coalition “caused” the civilian deaths; no one can be held responsible – particularly the Germans who deferred as long as they could before going to the bomb site and nearby villages. But the provincial authorities brought a different perspective; they blamed both the Taliban fighters and the villagers that had swarmed to the site to siphon the fuel for their own use (the fuel was destined for NATO troops). The governor of Kunduz seemed more offended by the villagers’ attempt to steal a few liters of fuel than by the devastation of the ford and the high number of noncombatants killed by the coalition in this pre-dawn strike. The actual number killed – insurgents and residents – may never be known, but will probably be set at about 70 – one half the 140 Afghanis killed during another air attack in August.
What I see as emerging from the interplay of the institutional players – Afghan noncombatants, Afghan officials, the German commander, the NATO inspector team, the U.S. pilots, and the Taliban insurgents – is a failure in the normal development and integration of broad cultural mores that ordinarily would be acceptable by the majority of Afghanis – and to “outsiders” as far back as Alexander the Great – with a stake in the game.
At the end, the Afghan people have to identify the stress on the system and institutions of governance and devise ways to bridge the tribal and clan divisions that were rekindled when the Soviets and the U.S. simply walked away in 1989. This suggests some form of power sharing by the different factions, on an ethnic blueprint similar to the sectarian blueprint that evolved in Iraq over the last five years (but which might fracture again between Arabs and Kurds). What is obviously a major challenge to any effort to re-allocate power in Afghanistan is the massive corruption practiced by the “rulers” at all levels.
Few observers of Afghanistan question the skill, courage, and loyalty of individual Afghan fighters to their tribal identity and clan elders. Yet it is precisely at this point that adherence to tribal instinct and its defense cannot generate the unifying will necessary to create and maintain both inter- and intra-national institutions capable of directing the evolution of a workable political and civil society.