KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Afghan officials and residents in Kunduz province have reported that dozens of people were killed in a late Monday morning airstrike on a religious school in the Dasht-e Archi district. While officials say the casualties were Taliban fighters, locals speaking to ThinkProgress say all of the killed and injured were civilians.
According to Dasht-e Archi residents, hundreds of people, including children, were attending a graduation ceremony when the Gujur Akhondzada madrasa first came under gunfire, then aerial attack.
Officials cited the deaths of 15 Taliban fighters — including Tajik and Pakistani nationals — but made no mention of civilian casualties. Speaking to local media, government sources said that, at the time of the attack, the madrasa was being used by a delegation from the Taliban’s leadership council based in Pakistan.
Earlier in the week, an operation targeting Taliban fighters in the northern province of Badakhshan — which killed at least eight of the fighters — led to the deaths of four civilians, including one woman.
The incidents in Kunduz and Badakhshan come as residents in the southern province of Helmand have staged sit-ins and hunger strikes calling on both the government and Taliban to put an end to the violence in the country.
Describing the aftermath of Monday’s airstrike, Zia-ur Rahman, a teacher who witnessed the attack, told ThinkProgress that by Tuesday morning “there were dozens of funeral announcements being issued in every village of Archi.”
Zia refuted the government’s claim that the religious school was being used by the Taliban at the time of the attack, calling it “totally false.”
“People from all over the district were gathered at this madrassa to attend the graduation ceremony of new graduates.”
Noorulhuda, a 36-year-old aid worker whose family hails from the district, said that at least 100 people were killed and “countless” others were wounded.
“Every household is holding five or six funerals,” Noorulhuda said while attending to one of the injured who had been transported to the provincial capital.
In the hours following the strike, a well-known doctor in the district posted pictures of civilians he said were killed and wounded on Facebook. Other pictures posted online seemed to show children who had been injured in the attack.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said they have dispatched a team to Kunduz who are “actively looking in to disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians” from yesterday’s airstrike.
Obaid Ali, an analyst at the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analyst Network, said residents he spoke to insist that all of the killed and injured were students and teachers.
Ali said that despite government claims that high-ranking Taliban commanders had been killed, it is highly unlikely that they would attend a ceremony held to honor madrasa students who have completed their recitation of the Quran by tying a turban on their heads.
“The Taliban are very careful not to gather in groups, because they know that even 10 of them together become a target for air and drone strikes.”
Zia, the teacher who witnessed the attack, agreed.
“Everyone knows that there were no Taliban members present at the time.”
US backed Afghan military airstrike killed 80 worshippers at a mosque in #Kunduz, including kids who were there to receive their gifts for completing their course (Hafiz e Quran). Same mistakes US committed in FATA and killed thousands of innocents pplpic.twitter.com/yfd505IsFm
— Dr. Zarqa Taimur (@drzarqa) April 3, 2018
Last May, a U.S. drone strike in the district killed Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund, the Taliban’s shadow governor in Kunduz who had been instrumental in the group’s brief capture of the provincial capital in 2015.
Zia said that the group’s fear of aerial attack has made them extremely scarce in the district, even to those looking for assistance.
“Even people who search them out to resolve an issue in the community have a hard time finding them these days,” he said. “They would certainly never appear in a ceremony intended for civilians.”
In the zeal to kill Taliban fighters, civilians are neglected
Over the last three years, Dasht-e Archi, about 70 kilometers from the provincial capital, Kunduz, has become the site of consistent fighting between government and Taliban forces.
Noorulhuda, along with other residents, said the government is only in control of the district center, a reality that is highlighted by the fact that the madrasa, where officials claim a Taliban gathering was taking place, is located in a village barely five kilometers from the district center.
The Taliban’s grasp over Dasht-e Archi really took hold in 2009, when they played to the disenchantment among residents in the most remote and impoverished areas of the district, who felt they suffering from poor local governance and a lack of services.
Matters only worsened when Kabul began relying on local militias to make up for shortcomings among the Afghan National Security Forces in Kunduz. These militias were accused of extortion, illegal land grabs, rape, assault, and ethnically-motivated killings.
District residents say the Taliban is able to finance their exploits in Dasht-e Archi through the illegal sale of military equipment, which they steal from the battlefields.
In 2016, officials claimed another madrasa in Dasht-e Archi was being used by the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-allied group, for “terrorist training,” including suicide bombings.
Over the last three years, Kunduz, which briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015 and 2016, has been the site of several high-profile airstrikes conducted by Afghan and foreign forces.
In 2015, at least 42 people — including doctors and patients — were killed when U.S. forces bombed a clinic run by the international medical organization, Médecins Sans Frontières. The following year, the village of Boz Qandahari came under attack by U.S. airpower. The nighttime attack led to the deaths of 36 people, at least 11 of which were children. In 2017, Washington once again denied that airstrikes they conducted over Chardara district resulted in civilian casualties. However, a subsequent investigation by the United Nations found that at least 10 civilians had been killed in the airstrikes.
Referring to the history of airstrikes over the province, Patricia Gossman, chief Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, told ThinkProgress, “In their zeal to kill Taliban leaders, Afghan and U.S. forces too often disregard the need to protect civilians. More families should not lose their children waiting for officials to do as they promise and ensure that their forces adhere to international law.”
Gossman said per the laws of war, targeted killings must be carried out in compliance with the principle of proportionality. However, Monday’s strike is the “latest incident in which airstrikes aimed at killing insurgent leaders may have disproportionately killed civilians.”
These kids were supposed to be graduating yday from memorizing holy Quran. Instead, warplanes came & bombed the mosque where the graduation ceremony was being held. Nothing left of them except flesh pieces. Over 80 students/teachers/parents perished in airstrikes #Kunduzmassacre pic.twitter.com/OMdq9vume1
— Mirwais Afghan (@miirwais) April 3, 2018
Though the national unity government has stayed largely silent on the matter, former President Hamid Karzai, condemned the operation as yet another example of the “destruction of Afghan lives and property” in the ongoing conflict in the country.
“Such raids, carried out in the name of fighting terrorism, on our homes, hospitals and religious facilities are against all principles,” Karzai tweeted late Monday evening.