U.S. denies civilian deaths in recent Afghanistan airstrikes, but locals claim otherwise

“All we could see was warplanes, drones, and choppers circling the sky all night.”

Silhouette of soldiers and helicopters during a military mission at dusk. (CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)
Silhouette of soldiers and helicopters during a military mission at dusk. (CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The United States military says they have found “no evidence” of civilian casualties from a series of overnight airstrikes conducted in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz last week.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the United States Forces — Afghanistan said their investigation into airstrikes over the district of Chardara between November 3 and 4, found only that “numerous enemy combatants were killed.”

This finding, said the statement, was confirmed by Kunduz Governor Omarkhail and Ministry of Defense Spokesman Major General Dawlat Waziri. “No hospitals or clinics in the local area indicated treatment of people with wounds from armed conflict,” U.S. forces said.

However, Mohammad Naeem Mangal, director of the Kunduz Public Health Hospital told ThinkProgress that seven civilian patients have been transferred to his facility in the provincial capital — six injured and one killed.

In the days since the attacks, residents and local lawmakers have insisted that there were indeed civilian casualties. Based on their counts, even the numbers given by hospital officials represent only a fraction of the dead and injured.

ThinkProgress obtained a death announcement from the village of Ghoraw Qeshlak, one of the villages that came under attack, that lists at least 10 names.

A death announcement from the village of Ghoraw Qeshlak, one of the villages that came under attack, lists 10 names. (CREDIT: ALI M. LATIFI)
A death announcement from the village of Ghoraw Qeshlak, one of the villages that came under attack, lists 10 names. (CREDIT: ALI M. LATIFI)

Safiullah Amiri, another provincial council member, said as many as 22 civilians were killed.

In a conversation with ThinkProgress, Mawlawi Khush Muhammad Nasratyar, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said the conditions on the road have made it difficult to transport all of the wounded to the central hospital in the provincial capital. Though Chardara lies only a few kilometers from the provincial capital, the district has long been under Taliban control.

“The operation was not to take villages. It was just to weaken the Taliban,” a source in Kunduz said, referring to the operations that lasted from October 31 to November 5.

While there has been near silence from Kabul’s high-level officials on Chardara, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah did tweet his condolences for victims of Sunday’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, saying he stands “in solidarity with the people and government of the U.S.”

As the current government seems to keep mum on the matter, former President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, calling it “an atrocity against the Afghan people.”

Attacks are a part of daily life

For Afghans, the Chardara strikes, part of an operation targeting the Taliban, serve as yet another example of the toll that increased fighting has taken on civilian life in the nation.

In August, a United Nations investigation found that airstrikes in the provinces of Herat and Logar led to at least 28 civilian deaths — all women and children.

Over the years, foreign airstrikes over Kunduz have resulted in civilian casualties several times.

Last November, airstrikes in the village of Boz Qandahari led to the death of at least 33 civilians. In 2015, U.S. airstrikes led to the destruction of a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in the provincial capital, at least 22 people were killed, another 37 were injured in the hour-long aerial strikes. In 2009, NATO aerial bombings near Ali Abad district led to at least 70 civilian deaths.

While Washington has closed its investigation into the recent airstrikes, sources in Kunduz and Chardara continue to tell their stories of what happened in those late-night hours between Friday and Saturday last week.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Kunduz resident, said the sky was full of air power on the evening of the deadly airstrikes.

“All we could see was warplanes, drones, and choppers circling the sky all night,” Ehsan told ThinkProgress.

Ehsan, who has been in contact with Chardara residents since the bombings, said three villages were bombed in the operations. All three villages, he said, suffered severe damage, with hundreds of homes razed and agricultural lands destroyed.

“The financial impact on the people of Kunduz will be too high,” said Ehsan.

For residents in Kunduz, as upsetting as the Chardara strikes have been, the fighting is nothing new.

They say such attacks have been part of their daily life since October 2016, when the Taliban managed to briefly overrun the eponymous provincial capital for a second time in a two-year span.

“For the last year, there have been so many operations and attacks on the ground and in the sky in Kunduz,” said Obaid Ali, an analyst at the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

The intensified operations in Kunduz have included ground engagements, air strikes, drone strikes and the controversial practice of night raids, which were banned by then President Hamid Karzai in 2013.

Ali said locals have reported sightings of U.S. forces engaging in the fighting themselves, a phenomenon which seems to go against the current mandate for foreign troops, who are meant to be serving only as trainers and advisers to the Afghan National Security Forces.

Previously, there were reports that U.S. forces, including Marines, were actively heading to Afghan Army bases in the southern province of Helmand, which has also come under direct Taliban attack several times over the last two years.

Russian aid to Taliban has forced U.S. into new areas

There is also another factor at play that has led to the renewed U.S. military efforts in the Kunduz, namely, reports of the Taliban receiving aid, including arms, from Russia.

Official reports of possible Russian assistance to the Taliban dates back to March, when Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations, addressed a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

In July, CNN broadcasted a video showing a Taliban fighter brandishing what he says are Russian-provided weapons that were transported through Kunduz.

Ali, the analyst, said these reports forced Washington into areas it largely left alone in the past.

“Before the Russia allegations, neither the U.S. nor the Germans really did much in areas like Chardara. Previously, there were reports of hundreds of Taliban leaders gathering for meetings in Chardara, but nothing would happen to them,” Ali told ThinkProgress.

Residents in Kunduz and the eastern province of Nangarhar, all say that the number of U.S. airstrikes in their regions have increased in recent months. These attacks, which many Afghans support as an effective tool against the Taliban and other armed groups, have not been without their controversies, especially in regard to civilian casualties.

According to the United Nations, the first nine months of 2017 saw a 52 percent increase in civilian casualties from pro-government (foreign and Afghan) air operations in the country. Last July, one civilian was injured when a coalition airstrike hit the Khwaja Mashad school in Kunduz.

Of course, with the Taliban controlling much of Chardara, piecing together what happened between the hours of Friday evening and Saturday morning, may prove difficult.

The central government has little direct access to the site and locals may be too afraid to talk to the media, said Ali.

Further, Ali said, the Taliban could intimidate civilians in Chardara to alter their accounts of what transpired.

UPDATE: One day after Washington released their findings, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said their own investigation found “credible reports” of at least 10 civilians killed in last week’s airstrikes. The United Nations said medics were among the people they interviewed as part of their report, as well as survivors and elders from the area.

With the UN’s findings, the latest airstrikes mark the third time in as many months that Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes. The figure from Chardara now brings the number of civilians killed by U.S. air power since the end of August to 38. Coming almost exactly a year after the Boz Qandahari airstrikes, which resulted in 33 civilian deaths, the U.N. report on the Chardara strikes puts the number of civilians in Kunduz killed by U.S. airstrikes since last November to at least 43.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of a source. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling, Mawlawi Khush Muhammad Nasratyar.