Dubai, UAE "Matter of Shame," screamed the headline on the op/ed page in Thursday's edition of the Khaleej Times.
In the editorial, the English-language newspaper castigated American military forces operating in Afghanistan after a U.S.-led coalition airstrike against the Taliban near Jalalabad went terribly wrong earlier this week. Twenty-one civilians, including women and children, were killed.
Taliban fighters had been hiding in a house in the Sangin district of Helmand province, where the Taliban is heavily entrenched. Helmand is the largest opium producer in the country, and the U.S. has stepped up operations in recent months in an effort to drive out the most dangerous antigovernment groups, including insurgents crossing the border from neighboring Pakistan. The civilian deaths were tragic, and if the air strike was indiscriminate or the result of sloppy planning, then there should be accountability -- especially considering this wasn't the first mishap on this scale.
But what I also found unsettling was the vitriolic tone of the editorial, and the absence of a single shred of balance. Throughout were comments that revealed contempt for the coalition forces' broader mission -- namely to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban so that the Afghan people, with the help of the global community, can step up the pace of rebuilding and prevent the country from collapsing once more into turmoil. The editorial was laced with phrases such as "so-called war on terror" and "self-professed liberators." Needless to say, incidents like the errant air strike in Helmand vastly complicate the humanitarian part of the overall mission, which is to carry out the international community's recovery plan for the country.
What readers of the Khaleej Times are unlikely to read about is a recent firefight between Taliban and personnel working for DynCorp International. The Washington-based government-services contractor, working for the U.S. State Dept., has been partnered with the Afghan Eradication Force to wipe out as much of the country's poppy crop as possible, though progress has been dreadfully slow because aerial spraying is barred. From the poppy plant comes opium, whose sale across Europe and Asia bankrolls both the Taliban and al Qaeda. (Replacing poppy fields with other crops is a big part of the job and is happening.)
A UH-1 Huey helicopter operated by DynCorp (like pictured above) was hit multiple times. Bullets from AK-47 rifles narrowly missed the flight crew, who were lucky this time. They didn't return fire in self-defense because the attack came from a line of trees, where Taliban were believed to have taken positions in the vicinity of children. It was the first time DynCorp aircraft have taken direct hits.
"The Taliban is becoming more knowledgeable about who we are and what we're doing, and so I expect the attacks to increase," said a former Army aviator who manages the DynCorp air wing. "Our biggest concern now is shoulder-fired missiles. We know a lot of them are out there."
--Tony Velocci, Editor-in-Chief, Aviation Week & Space Technology