The death of Mullah Dadullah, the one-legged commander of Taliban forces in Afghanistan who was high on the most-wanted list of U.S. forces, could deal a significant blow to the country’s Islamic insurgency (BBC). He is the third top Taliban leader to be killed by coalition forces in the past six months, signaling some success at repelling a resurgent Taliban in parts of southern Afghanistan. But the fluidity of the Taliban's command structure, noted by U.S. and NATO officials, could lessen the impact of Dadullah's removal. News of his death coincided with the fallout from a series of miscues that have damaged the image of U.S. and NATO forces in the country. Recent U.S.-led air strikes have left scores of civilians dead (Economist.com), resulting in growing anti-Americanism among Afghans.
Most recently a May 9 NATO air strike in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, killed at least twenty-one noncombatants, among them women and children (BBC). Previously in April, U.S. air strikes left at least fifty-seven Afghans killed in Shindand district. And in March, a convoy of U.S. Marines opened fire near the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, killing nineteen civilians. After the Jalalabad incident, the U.S. military issued an unusual apology for what it called a “terrible, terrible mistake” and promised a complete investigation.
These attacks have prompted a number of anti-U.S. protests, while Afghan newspapers have published blistering editorials accusing NATO and the United States of “war crimes.” Lawmakers are calling for more oversight. Even President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks and said his patience with foreign forces was “wearing thin.”
The dramatic rise in civilian casualties reflects the fact that the Taliban are hiding out among civilian populations in greater numbers. More civilians are also dying in suicide bombings, according to an April 2007 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. “As in Iraq, suicide bombers in Afghanistan have driven a wedge between ordinary people and the government,” writes Newsweek. The HRW study finds that roughly seven hundred Afghan civilians died at the hands of the Taliban and other groups last year, while about 230 innocents were killed—unintentionally—by U.S. or coalition forces. So far in 2007, 238 civilians have been killed by the fighting, over a hundred of them the result of U.S. or NATO attacks, according to the Associated Press.
To date, the United States and NATO have enjoyed wide latitude in mounting air campaigns and roaming insurgent hotspots. That may be curtailed by a push in the Afghan government to involve Kabul more in the planning of operations and set up a more formalized system to investigate civilian casualties. Further, some parliamentarians are calling for a military cease-fire (Guardian) and direct negotiations with native Taliban leaders to quell the violence. Some are even pressing for a date set to withdraw foreign forces. NATO officials say they have no intention of withdrawing (Bloomberg) their thirty-seven thousand forces in the near future.
Although suicide and guerrilla-style attacks continue, the much awaited “spring offensive” by Taliban forces has not materialized. NATO forces plan to launch their own offensive (International News Network) into Helmand province and its northern regions overrun by local Taliban elements. Syed Saleem Shahzad of the Asia Times Online writes about a reported split within the Taliban’s leadership, as well as Dadullah's alleged ties to the Pakistani government, but warns that a spring offensive against Kabul still might destabilize the country. It's unclear how Dadullah's death might affect whatever Taliban offensive was in the works.