TAGAB VALLEY, Afghanistan – Rockets slammed into a market northeast of Kabul on Monday, killing 12 civilians but missing their presumed target: a meeting between France's top general in Afghanistan and dozens of tribal elders and senior local officials.
The attack also wounded 38 people, 20 of them critically. The market was crowded with shoppers because Monday is bazaar day in Tagab, a sprawling town of mud brick fortress-like compounds and small fields along a river surrounded by the barren slopes and snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
Brig. Gen. Marcel Druart told The Associated Press that the meeting, known as a shura, 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.
"The shura didn't stop, and it was in my opinion very important," Druart, who was unhurt, said at the NATO base in Nijrab, 5 miles (8 kilometers) north of Tagab.
The general was sitting down with about 40 Afghan officials to discuss a major French offensive launched the previous day. The purpose of the operation is to secure the area for a planned road that would bypass the capital, Kabul, while moving in supplies from neighboring Pakistan.
The rockets struck about 90 minutes after the meeting convened in a building next to the main market of Tagab. They landed about 200 yards (meters) away, Druart said.
French forces immediately retaliated with artillery, shelling the rockets' launching site, said Druart, commander of the French Lafayette Task Force in Afghanistan.
Sporadic shelling could be heard throughout the afternoon, as attack helicopters hovered overhead. Other helicopters ferried away the wounded.
"The target was clearly the shura," said Lt. Col. Lionel, one of the officers who witnessed the attack.
Lionel, who gave the death toll, said these types of tribal council meetings are vulnerable because so many people are invited.
French army field rules allow Lionel and other officers to be identified only by their first names.
Maj. Philippe, an army doctor who was flown to Tagab to treat the wounded, said 20 of the injured were evacuated to Kabul and Bagram.
"Most of the casualties were from multiple shrapnel wounds," Philippe said.
Druart said the attack "shows clearly that the insurgents don't care about the lives of the civilian Afghan population."
"My priority is the population, before the insurgents," Druart said. "But when the insurgents prevent me from having contacts with the population or, like in this case, attack the population, then I react. I repeat my priority is the population and improving their life. The insurgents are a problem we treat separately."
The French example could serve as a test case for the counterinsurgency tactics that U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal outlined this summer for the roughly 100,000 international forces in Afghanistan. Currently discussing a troop surge with the Obama administration, McChrystal says he needs the manpower to spread deeply across Afghanistan and focus on winning the population rather than simply killing Taliban.
NATO forces have bases in the broad Tagab Valley, but have had difficulty stabilizing the mountainous area connected by footpaths. In September, two French soldiers were killed and eight wounded in a roadside bomb attack in the Tagab area.
France has more than 3,000 troops stationed mainly north of Kabul in the Kapisa and Surobi areas.
By contrast, Druart estimated there were about 300 active militants in the Tagab area and side valleys of Kapisa province. Insurgents based here carry out quick strikes on targets that include Kabul, 30 miles (48 kilometers) away, then disappear into villages.
In Sunday's "Operation Avalon," about 100 armored vehicles pushed from the north and south of the valley with 700 French troops and about 100 Afghan soldiers.
An AP reporter traveling with French troops observed that insurgents resisted through the afternoon with snipers, mortars and rockets, often firing and then hiding in inhabited areas before attack helicopters could target them.