There is no fog of war at 20,000 ft. above Afghanistan. For nearly three years, as U.S. warplanes and drones hit targets spread across the country's corrugated, dun-colored mountains and green poppy-growing valleys, every mission detailed by the Air Force in its daily "airpower summary" has been deemed a success. In July, B-1 bombers began striking Afghan targets with 500-lb. bombs guided to their prey by a new targeting pod slung under the plane's belly. Known as the Sniper, the pod sends long-range, high-resolution video--it can tell whether an Afghan on the ground is armed--right into the cockpit. Such weapons systems allow the U.S. military to rain steel on the Taliban from on high, even when troops aren't in the area. The Pentagon doesn't release statistics of the insurgents killed, but the military regards air strikes as the smart strategy in Afghanistan.
On the ground, the picture is much less clear; for all their precision, American bombs sometimes take out the wrong targets. As U.S. air strikes doubled from 2006 to 2007, the number of accidental civilian deaths soared, from 116 to 321, according to Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon targeting chief who tabulates civilian casualties for Human Rights Watch (HRW), an independent research group. By his count, the death toll among civilians so far this year is approaching 200.
The military dismisses such tallies as exaggerated, and their provenance is often murky. In no case is it murkier than in the Aug. 22 strike on the western Afghan village of Azizabad. What is not in dispute is that U.S. special forces on the ground ordered an AC-130 gunship to attack at least two houses after they and their Afghan allies came under fire. The result of the attack, however, is far from certain. The Pentagon concluded that up to 35 insurgents and as many as seven civilians were killed. But the Afghan government, backed by a United Nations inquiry, puts the toll at 76 to 90 civilians, including 60 children. That would make it the deadliest strike since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. (The U.S. military plans to join the Afghan government and the U.N. in a probe to resolve the conflicting reports.)
Whatever the tally, officials both inside and outside the U.S. military say attacks that kill civilians occur with distressing regularity; they generate headlines only when dozens die. Afghans vividly recall the July 2002 bombing of a wedding party--celebratory gunfire led to retaliation by an AC-130--that killed up to 48 civilians and wounded 117 in Oruzgan province; many were women and children. This past July, 47 people were killed and nine wounded on their way to a wedding in eastern Afghanistan. Among the dead were 39 women and children, including the bride-to-be, Afghan authorities said.
Such attacks yield propaganda gold for the Taliban, which feeds on anti-American rage. "The more people turn against Americans, the more benefits the Taliban get," says Saifuddin Ahmadi, a 52-year-old Kabul cabdriver. In the Afghan capital, anger over civilian casualties is leavened by the knowledge that U.S. and NATO troops may be keeping Afghanistan from plunging into civil war. In the countryside, opinions are stronger. Haji Obaidulla, 65, who lives in Kapisa province, northeast of the capital, says he "would prefer civil war to being killed by American air strikes."
Afghan officials say sporadic civilian deaths are inevitable, but they are troubled by the frequency and persistence of attacks like the one at Azizabad. "You can't have casualties and no end in sight," President Hamid Karzai told TIME recently. Senior U.S. officials agree. When military operations claim civilian lives, "it really does set us back," Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Aug. 28 while discussing the Azizabad operation. "So we work exceptionally hard to make sure that doesn't happen."
To minimize mistakes, the Air Force routinely conducts "pattern of life" studies of Taliban leaders and other key targets, using camera-carrying drones to plot their travels for days or weeks. That enables U.S. planners to figure out when the targets can be attacked without jeopardizing innocent lives. But not all air strikes can be so meticulously planned; U.S. or allied units can call in sudden strikes when they find themselves in a firefight or stumble on a meeting of Taliban leaders. When civilians are detected, strikes are called off--and some insurgents capitalize on this. "Sometimes it's a conscious tactic of these people who meet to make sure there are kids playing in the compound so that they're seen, and that complicates your targeting methodology," General James Conway, commandant of the Marines, told reporters on Aug. 27. "This is a dirty game being played."
But the main reason for civilian casualties is that the revolution in precision-guided weapons hasn't been matched by the quality of intelligence needed to drop them in the right place. "Technology has leaped forward, but the ability to know precisely who's at your target hasn't," says HRW's Garlasco, who spent nearly seven years plotting targets for the Pentagon. The military sometimes launches air strikes based on tips from Afghan tribesmen, some of whom are not above using American firepower in their own feuds. For some observers, the surest way to improve the quality of intel is to put more Americans on the ground--to use more snipers instead of Snipers. But with the U.S. military stretched thin in Iraq--and NATO's allies reluctant to send more forces--it will be many months before more ground troops are in Afghanistan. And having American soldiers in a position to call in strikes is no guarantee that civilians won't be killed. That was made clear in a Sept. 3 cross-border raid into Pakistan, apparently by Afghan-based U.S. forces, that left as many as 15 dead, including women and children, local officials said. (See photos of the vulnerable Pakistan-Afghanistan border area here.)
The Pentagon recognizes that the mounting toll is making a hard job in Afghanistan even harder. In August, the Air Force stopped issuing the daily airpower summaries boasting only of U.S. successes. When asked why, the Air Force said in an official statement that there is a "need to review the way information is collected." But the sad reality is that so long as the war persists, Afghan civilians will be the ones paying the heaviest price.