More and more Pashtun leaders, angered by the mounting civilian casualty toll from U.S. bombing in eastern Afghanistan, are openly criticizing the government of Hamid Karzai for backing the operation.

This is a potentially dangerous development for the prime minister. He cannot afford to alienate the Pashtun tribes–whose lands straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan–as they represent his power base.

Should Pashtun anger lead to the withdrawal of their support for his administration, it would leave him isolated in cabinet dominated by the Northern Alliance.

So far, opposition to the bombing is reported to have been strongest among clans in northern Pakistan, but those in southern Afghanistan are also becoming increasingly unhappy over the campaign. In a bid to diffuse Pashtun dissent, the prime minister has urged his people to unite behind him, arguing that this is vital if they want to play a significant role in the future of the country. Initially, most Pashtun representatives agreed that America be allowed to pursue Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in the border region, but with the mounting casualty toll, traditional Afghan suspicion of foreign interference has begun to surface.

One U.S. study has suggested that several thousand civilians may have died in American raids in the last three months of 2001. In one operation in the province of Paktia on December 29, 53 villagers are said to have lost their lives.

“They (the Americans) have no respect for our culture, religion, or people,” said Haji Shaker Ullha Jan, the president of the Pashtun Alliance of Independent Tribes.

Although the criticism was initially leveled at Washington, Karzai’s internationally backed government has been receiving increased flak for not addressing the issue of civilian fatalities.

And some leaders are warning of longer-term effects. One tribal head, Haji Saifullah Ahmadzia, told the BBC that the continued bombing was threatening the whole Afghan peace process. He called on the Kabul authorities and the U.S. to stop the campaign or risk causing “deep hatred among the people towards the government and towards the international community.”

But Karzai is powerless to influence Washington as far as the bombing is concerned. The Americans, meanwhile, have acknowledged the existence of “pockets of resistance” to their operation but have stated that they have no intention of stopping until they have met their objectives.

Anxious over the growing tribal dissent, Karzai is working hard to unite the Pashtun community behind him. Over the past weeks several efforts have been made with this goal in mind.

Leading Karzai allies, Latif Afridi and Mehmood Khan Acheczai, are actively engaged in getting backing for the prime minister among Pashtun tribes in northern Pakistan.

Both men have a wide support base in the frontier region. Acheczai is chief of one of the most powerful clans spread across south and central Afghanistan and the Baluchistan province of Pakistan and Afridi enjoys comparable cross-border support.

A second initiative appears to have the backing of the authorities in Islamabad, which, if true, can only be good for the prime minister. Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, a highly influential Pashtun leader from Pakistan, who has lived in London for the past two years in self-imposed exile, flew to Peshawar on January 7 with the intention of meeting with Karzai and other tribal leaders, in a bid to promote Pashtun unity.

Sherpao was arrested on arrival in Pakistan on the same charges of corruption that had forced him into exile. He had earlier told IWPR that he knew he would be detained, but was confident he would later be released to hold talks with the Afghan premier and the Pashtun representatives.

Pakistani newspapers suggested that Sherpao had struck some sort of deal with the Islamabad authorities. Why else, they say, would he have flown to Pakistan in the first place if he expected a long prison term.

Whether Karzai succeeds in rallying Pashtuns behind him remains to be seen. He’s clearly trying hard to keep tribal chiefs on side, but if the U.S. bombing continues for very much longer, he may be powerless to prevent them from withdrawing support for his administration.