KABUL – A rocket attack apparently targeting French forces that killed ordinary Afghans raised concerns Tuesday in eastern Afghanistan about international troops' ability to secure a volatile valley despite a major offensive.
Monday's assault in Tagab missed the shura — a traditional meeting called by French officers to explain their operation to local elders— but hit a crowded market area. Fourteen Afghan civilians were killed and dozens more wounded, said Afghan Gen. Paikan Zamaray.
A day earlier, French and Afghan forces launched a major offensive in the Tagab valley, but the assault underscored how difficult it is for troops to protect civilians and combat insurgent violence, especially because an increased military presence can draw more violence.
Those concerns are likely to be amplified as Western countries commit more forces to Afghanistan. The U.S. is considering sending tens of thousands more troops, but military officials say that even with a buildup, real security is years away.
The men who agreed to meet with French troops as they marched into the Tagab valley all voiced their support for the Afghan government and its NATO backers.
"We want security, so we can do business and live normally here," said Abdelshafi Shah, a farmer who was laying mud bricks for a new house.
But as columns of troops and armored vehicles passed through villages in the valley, many residents appeared more fearful than welcoming.
Some boys grinned at NATO troops, but others crouched on rooftops. Most men stayed inside, and women clad in burqa veils scooped up their toddlers and ran for the woods.
A provincial council member said that the assault in Tagab shows that the international forces aren't trying hard enough.
"They have jet fighters that can see everything. They can see the Taliban. But what is the use? They do not stop the attacks," Mohammad Arif Malakjan said Tuesday.
French Brig. Gen. Marcel Druart stressed that the meeting — which he attended — continued despite the attack to show that the Taliban cannot disrupt NATO's plans in a tense valley where both sides are competing for influence.
"I think it was a kind of desperate course of action because they are not in the situation where they can fight against us, and they can't prevent us from freedom of movement along the Tagab valley," Druart told reporters in Kabul.
But an Associated Press reporter traveling with the troops saw difficult it was to root out insurgents from civilians. One young man — dressed in clean, black and white clothes — melted into a group of farmers after triggering a rocket launcher. Insurgent fire often came from houses.
Many officials in Tagab said that they felt more than ever that the Taliban threat will not go away.
"The security situation in Tagab is so bad this year," said Najibullah Rahimi, a member of the district council. "The people are demoralized by both sides. The foreigners and the insurgents fight but the civilians are the ones who are sacrificed."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied any role in the attack and condemned the civilian deaths, saying international forces must have opened fire. The Islamist extremist group typically does not claim responsibility for attacks that result in civilian deaths.
Rahimi said that it is the repetition of such violent incidents that threatens the valley, because it will prompt retaliation against whoever is deemed responsible.
"If these kinds of incidents happen, it will have consequences in the future because the people are just getting angrier and angrier," he said.