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Responsibility for mounting civilian casualties in Afghanistan pinned on U.S.-backed forces

U.N. says U.S. and Afghan forces have killed more civilians than the Taliban have this year

A boy flies a kite on the rooftop of a house in Mazar-i-Sharif. (FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy flies a kite on the rooftop of a house in Mazar-i-Sharif. (FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Last week, the United Nations released its second report this year on civilian casualties in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Though the report found that armed opposition groups like the Taliban and ISIS were responsible, overall, for the highest number of civilian casualties — including deaths and injuries — the Afghan government and its allies were nevertheless responsible for the majority of civilian deaths between Jan. 1 and June 30.

The figure that should raise the most alarm in Washington and especially at the CIA is the report’s conclusion that 83% of the 519 civilian casualties caused by aerial operations — 363 deaths and 156 injured — were caused by international military forces.

With the Afghan Air Force still working to re-establish itself, the bulk of the aerial operations in Afghanistan are the domain of foreign forces, pre-eminently the United States. During his eight-year tenure, former President Barack Obama greatly expanded the use of drones in the United States’ foreign incursions, including Afghanistan. This expansion of the drone war, combined with the Trump administration’s desire to bring an end to the U.S. invasion, have now led to two consecutive quarters in which the Kabul government and its foreign backers are responsible for more civilian deaths than the Taliban and ISIS combined.

In fact, the latest U.N. report indicates a 39% increase in overall civilian casualties from aerial operations, with a doubling of the number of civilian deaths from such attacks. These numbers, said the U.N., highlight “the lethal character of this tactic.”

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Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the United States military, disputed the “methods and findings” of the United Nations report in an interview with The New York Times.

“We assess and investigate all credible allegations of noncombatant casualties in this complex environment, whereas others intentionally target public areas, use civilians as human shields and attempt to hide the truth through lies and propaganda,” Leggett told the Times.

Despite the military’s assurances, the rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump himself in recent weeks has caused Afghans to worry. Speaking on the White House lawn Friday, Trump doubled down on comments he made last month, saying the U.S. “could win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days, but I’m not looking to kill 10 million people,” according to AFP. 

The president went on to clarify that he was not talking about using nuclear weapons, something he left unsaid previously. “I’m talking conventional,” he said Friday. In 2017, the Trump administration dropped the so-called “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear weapon, on a village in the Eastern province of Nangarhar.

Most air and drone strikes and night raids take place in remote and insecure areas of the country, making it more difficult for the media and rights groups to investigate the government’s usual claims of “Taliban” or “militants” being killed. Residents in the Dasht-e Archi district of Kunduz province, where a 2018 airstrike on a madrasa left more than 30 children dead, questioned the strategy behind such attacks.

Saif-ur-Rahman, who has spent his entire life in Kunduz, said, “Dasht-e-Archi is full of Taliban. Why attack them during an event like this? Why not attack them when they are traveling freely on the roads?”

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The latest civilian casualty figures come nearly five years after the Obama administration announced the end of U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan. At that time, the U.S. and other foreign forces were supposed to transition into new roles, training and advising the Afghan National Security Forces. However, in recent years, U.S. forces have been involved in both aerial operations and night raids, during which American and Afghan forces enter villages and homes under the cover of darkness.

Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that the trend is not irreversible, and in that in 2008, Washington did take some steps to mitigate civilian casualties caused by aerial operations. This included the creation of a Civilian Casualties Mitigation Team, which had the resources and staff to investigate incidents of civilian killings and recommend measures that would affect how targets are chosen.

But those efforts have been substantially eroded in the intervening years.

“All of that has essentially been thrown out the window in a misguided effort to pressure the Taliban through air strikes and night raids,” said Gossman.

Gossman said rights groups are particularly concerned by the “use of clandestine forces, under the guidance of the CIA, during the already controversial nighttime raids, which see these forces detain or summarily execute suspected Taliban and civilians.”

In 2013, then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai greatly restricted the use of nighttime raids. That same year, U.S. special forces and their Afghan allies were accused of carrying out both disappearances and killings, many during night raids, in the Eastern province of Maidan Wardak.

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However, shortly after coming into power in the autumn of 2014, the national unity government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, lifted any limits on the practice. This included allowing U.S. Special Operations Forces to serve in an advisory role during such raids.

A source who has been in contact with the office of Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s chief negotiator in talks with the Taliban in Doha, told ThinkProgress that these tactics — including the air strikes and nighttime raids — “are driven very much by the U.S. agenda to put maximum pressure on the Taliban.” The Trump administration is hoping to engage in face-to-face negotiations that could lead to an in end in the U.S. incursion, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Like U.S. military officials, Afghan government officials claim that Taliban use civilian homes as a source of protection.

“The Taliban are using people’s homes as shields,” said one source from the Ministry of Defense, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

However, rather than putting pressure on the Taliban, these tactics are merely leading to more anger among the Afghan people.

In July, residents in the Northern province of Baghlan protested after an Afghan army helicopter bombardment killed seven civilians, including three women. July also saw protests in Maidan Wardak province, where residents maintain that airstrikes and night raids are leading to increased civilian casualties despite complaints to the Presidential Palace and intelligence officials. The residents threatened to boycott the Sept. 28 presidential elections if proper action was not taken.

“Once again the Afghan government has opted for short term political expediency … But in fact, they are causing more harm to Afghan families, fueling resentment and grievances, and undermining any chance of building accountable security institutions,” said Gossman.