Air warfare in Afghanistan costing civilian lives dearly

Published February 24th, 2017 - 01:00 GMT
Pakistani soldiers patrol at the Torkham crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan. (AFP/File)
Pakistani soldiers patrol at the Torkham crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan. (AFP/File)

The drone missile hit the tower in Jendakhel at 8 am as five men climbed up to keep watch for Daesh fighters who had been harassing their village for months.

Mistaken for the enemy, they became some of the latest victims of US airstrikes in Afghanistan. All were killed, their bodies crushed under the debris.

"The attack was a huge mistake," says Babur Khan, brother of one of the men, recounting his family's loss weeks later at a hotel in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.

He was later told the US controllers of the unmanned drone were given the wrong coordinates for the strike. Now nothing will bring his brother back.

Although civilian casualties have been one of the most divisive issues in the more than 15-year conflict, people claim that the "collateral damage" is being increasingly hushed up.

Many in Afghanistan also want the airstrikes to continue in the fight against the Taliban and Daesh.

The US and the Afghan government are standing their ground about the necessity. "Airstrikes are simply indispensable," a high-ranking military source in Kabul said. "They are often the last means to stop the Taliban."

The amount of weapons fired during aerial strikes rose by 40 per cent in 2016, according to Pentagon statistics released in December. But the tally of civilian casualties from these missions grew much faster, by 99 per cent, to 250 dead and 340 injured, the United Nations said in its annual report published in February.

Earlier this month, at least 19 civilians died in airstrikes on three villages in the Sangin district of Helmand province as Taliban forces were engaged.

Over the years, the deaths of large numbers of civilians in single attacks have strained the Afghan government's relations with its Western allies.

In 2009, 39 per cent of all civilian casualties were inflicted by international forces, prompting then-president Hamid Karzai to threaten to sever ties altogether. Karzai's outrage particularly over casualties during night raids and airstrikes brought some success.

In that year the commanders of the NATO-led international forces and separately commanded US forces introduced rules limiting the scope of combat measures against the insurgents if civilians were endangered.

As well as the humanitarian considerations, the deaths were simply turning the population against the international war effort.

The issue of civilian casualties "was a key factor in the growth and sustainability of the Taliban, it sorely damaged US-Afghan relations, undermined legitimacy of both parties, and alienated the Afghan people," Christopher Kolenda, a former senior US military advisor in Afghanistan, wrote in a 2016 report published by the Open Society Foundations.

While civilian deaths and injuries often triggered mass public protests, the current Afghan government is today conspicuously quiet about the issue. Those who seek information on the ground are often stonewalled or blatantly lied to.

After the deaths in Sangin, provincial officials insisted that the attacks targeted areas without residential buildings, while the UN published its own findings that mostly women and children had died.

Official silence and concealment of civilian deaths also reflects the harsh realities of the fight against the Taliban, who are again a potent force in the country and killed 6,785 soldiers and police officers in 2016 alone. The government's armed forces are overstretched, and Kabul currently controls only around 57 per cent of the country.

But with less than 10,000 soldiers on the ground, the US military must increasingly rely on Afghan forces for intelligence on enemy locations. Inexperienced pilots of the nascent Afghan air force are also a big part of the problem, being statistically three times more likely to open fire than those from the US.

Moreover, the number of victims is probably higher than indicated, since the UN must have three independent sources to verify each death. UN staff have less and less access to areas controlled by the Islamists and acknowledge possible under-reporting of civilian casualties in general.

Abdul Wahid, a resident of Nangarhar's Shirzad district, says about 30 civilians were killed there in airstrikes in the past year, but that communities are afraid to formally complain in case the Taliban punish them for consorting with foreigners.

"The Taliban do not want us to talk to authorities or go to the Americans," says Wahid. "They are afraid that we will give them information about them."

Babur Khan, whose brother died when the tower in Jendakhel was hit, says the same thing - people fear the Taliban and keep quiet.

Everyone who leaves or enters the district can be stopped by insurgent patrols and questioned, he says, highlighting another stark horror of this conflict: Anyone who is suspected of being a collaborator can be executed on the spot.

By Christine-Felice Roehrs

© 2022 dpa GmbH

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