It is springtime, and here on the Pentagon beat we're watching with interest the so-called "forgotten war" in Afghanistan. Every spring, as the weather warms up, the Taliban come out of the hills and start mixing it up again with U.S. and Afghan forces.
I was just in Afghanistan in late February and early March. During the visit, U.S. and NATO commanders warned me it was going to be an active spring. Sure enough, their intelligence was correct. Taliban forces have moved into the south of the country flush with money and new weaponry.
The U.S. military doesn't like to get involved in body counts. You know, "We killed more of them than they killed of us, so we win." Vietnam proved that's the wrong measure of who is winning. That said, U.S. commanders do point out the Taliban has suffered "extraordinary losses" in the past three or four weeks, including some mid-level Taliban leaders who were captured or killed.
The Sunday night/Monday morning strike near Azizi in Kandahar is the latest example. It looks like up to 80 people might have been killed when U.S. Air Force A-10s strafed and bombed Taliban positions. Kandahar is one of three southern provinces where the Taliban have come back stronger than they were last year.
The locals say many of those killed were innocent civilians, including women and children.
The U.S. military says it thinks most victims were Taliban fighters or civilians with "terrorist ties." The military says it does not target civilians and insists it takes all reasonable measures to prevent unintended civilian deaths. But it's also not willing to let the Taliban have safe havens in civilian homes.
Here is a statement from the Combined Forces Command, Afghanistan: "The Coalition only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists. Coalition forces must retain their ability to defend against fire emanating from known enemy positions."
And here is a possible translation of that statement: "If you hang with the Taliban, you may die with the Taliban."
What do the latest skirmishes with the Taliban mean? Are the Taliban staging a comeback in Afghanistan? That is difficult to say. But one thing is clear: The war here has become a test of wills as much as a test of firepower.