A NATO air strike hit an insurgent base in southern Afghanistan Friday, knocking out some 30 Taliban. The air strike was in retaliation for a militant attack on nearby police posts, but it also killed 25 civilians in the process, including 9 women, 3 children and a village mullah, according to local police.
It's the fourth such incident in less than two weeks, and while it heralds remarkable progress in the coalition's fight against the insurgency in the south, it also indicates an alarming spike in civilian casualties that many in this battle torn nation are calling unacceptable. President Karzai, in a vehement denunciation of the mounting civilian death toll, lambasted the international troops at a press conference Saturday, saying that this latest incident was yet another example of foreign troops using disproportionate force.
"Our innocent people are becoming victims of careless operations of NATO and international forces," he said. "We are thankful for [the international community's] help to Afghanistan, but that does not mean that Afghan lives have no value. Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such."
Government officials say that more than 90 civilians died this week as a result of NATO and US operations, part of the 230 that a consortium of aid agencies, including CARE, Save the Children and Mercy Corps, estimate have died since the beginning of the year due to ill-planned military operations. The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), which represents nearly 100 Afghan and international humanitarian and development groups, released their scathing report mid week, saying, "We strongly condemn the operations and force protection measures carried out by international military forces in which disproportionate or indiscriminate use of force has resulted in civilian casualties."
Friday's air strike follows a three-day battle between Coalition and militant forces in Uruzgan province in which it is thought that upward of 50 civilians may have been caught in the crossfire, though investigations are still being carried out. And on Monday, seven boys were killed when a US warplane bombed a religious seminary in Paktika, eastern Afghanistan. A coalition press statement released shortly after the attack said that the compound, which contained a mosque and a madrassah, was "a suspected safehouse for al-Qaida fighters" and that coalition forces had confirmed the "presence of nefarious activity occurring at the site before getting approval to conduct an air strike on the location." A subsequent statement, following the revelation that seven of the victims had been boys ranging in age from 12 to 15, held the militants responsible, saying, "Witness statements taken early this morning clearly put the blame on the suspected terrorists saying that if the children attempted to go outside they were beaten and pushed away from the door." "We are truly sorry for the innocent lives lost in this attack," said Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a Coalition spokesman. "We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building."
Nearly 6,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan over the past year and a half, according to press accounts and human rights groups. About 1,500 were civilians. While suicide bombs and other insurgent activities have killed the bulk of those civilians, comparisons between international and insurgent-inflicted death tolls insufficiently address the issue, says Dr. Sima Samar, Chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "We expect the International forces to do better," she says. "The Taliban do not abide by international human rights and humanitarian law. The international forces and the Afghan National Army have to be more cautious than the Taliban. Otherwise they will lose the trust of the people."
It may already be too late. The Taliban have successfully utilized the increasing civilian death toll as yet another reason why Afghans should hate the infidel invaders, as they call the foreign troops. Meanwhile NATO and Coalition forces can do little more than apologize and order investigations. Those apologies, combined with mounting frustration amongst Afghans who see little of the development projects promised when the international community first arrived after the fall of the Taliban, are starting to wear thin.
"What does this sorry mean?" Asks Takbeer party leader Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai. "They are bombarding villages because they hear the Taliban are there. But this is not the way, to bomb and kill 20 people for one Taliban. This is why people are losing hope and trust in the government and the internationals." Like many Afghans, Ahmadzai is starting to suspect a more sinister meaning behind the recent spate of civilian deaths."The Americans can make a mistake once, twice, maybe three times," he says. "But 20, 30 times? I am not convinced that they are doing this without intention."
Ahmadzai is no conspiracy minded country bumpkin; he's a former prime minister, educated in the US and the UK. While it's clear that NATO and coalition forces have absolutely no intention of killing civilians, the fact that otherwise intelligent Afghan opinion makers have been persuaded of foreign ill intent marks an alarming trend in Afghanistan. Few Afghans outside of the South, where the insurgency rages the strongest, want the foreigners to leave just yet, but there has been a strong push in Parliament for reconciliation with the Taliban. "They are human beings, they are the people of this country. Don't they have rights too?" asks Ahmadzai.
It's a move that's anathema to the West, but gaining traction amongst people sick of the constant fighting, and increasingly willing to do anything to stop the violence. "What is wrong with talking to the Taliban? Look at Northern Ireland. They were considered terrorists once, and look how that all ended. With glasses of champagne," says Ahmadzai.
Any move toward reconciliation is unlikely to see champagne toasts. But as an increased civilian death toll drives more Afghans away from supporting an international military presence in Afghanistan, operation commanders may have to start considering the rising price of their anti-insurgent successes.