The issue of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is itself becoming a “battleground” with truth often a casualty, showing the difficulty of establishing facts in a war fought in often remote areas.
And even when claims prove unfounded, the damage has already been done to the image of the international forces, which are already regarded with suspicion by Afghans wary of foreign intervention — a sentiment the Taliban tries to inflame.
The battle of the tolls — often impossible to verify independently — has been stepped up as fighting has intensified this summer with major clashes in which civilians have been caught in the crossfire of soldiers and militants.
In one recent example, residents of a remote district in the eastern province of Kunar claimed last week that 35 civilians were killed in air strikes, including one on a funeral, by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The police said the following day that 25 were dead.
ISAF, sensitive to civilian casualties after a series of incidents in June that Afghan officials said cost dozens of lives, has rejected the charge and insisted only a “significant number” of rebels were killed.
The interior ministry sent a team to the remote area in the mountainous province to investigate.
At the other end of the country, in the western province of Farah, the head of the provincial council Abdul Qadir Daqiq said at the weekend residents reported 108 civilians were killed in international force air strikes.
Asked again the next day, he could confirm only three.
The commander-in-chief of ISAF, General Dan McNeill, said at the weekend that sometimes tolls reported by Afghan officials are exaggerated “for whatever reason, for disinformation, misinformation or simply people failing to do an accurate account.”
But the “collateral damage” attributed to the international forces — true, false or even just rumours — has “the same negative impact on public opinion,” said analyst Fahim Dashty.
The damage is done abroad as well as at home, he said, with many of the 37 nations contributing troops to ISAF already alarmed by the scale of the fighting.
Some Afghan officials push up the numbers because of their own hostility towards the foreign troops or sympathy for the Taliban, said author Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistan expert on Afghanistan.
But President Hamid Karzai, while rebuking ISAF and the separate US-led coalition, has not criticised “Afghan officials who inflate the number of civilian casualties,” Rashid said, perhaps a sign of lack of control.
That is not to say the international forces are not at fault. The ISAF contributing nations are to blame for not sending enough troops and relying on air power to “get rid of the Taliban as quickly as possible,” Rashid said.
Between 350 and 400 bombs are being dropped a month, most of them sophisticated precision munitions, according to ISAF.
About 600 civilians have been killed this year, just over half by Afghan and international troops, says the United Nations, which stresses the difficulty of getting an accurate account in the absence of independent investigators on the ground.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission says it is stretched as claims of civilian casualties pile up.
“We have not yet been able, for this reason, to send people to Farah and Kunar,” commissioner Nader Nadery said.
Some cases are “effectively exaggerated,” he conceded, but there may be others that are just never reported.
The UN spokesman in Afghanistan, Adrian Edwards, said journalists should exercise “great caution.”
“We have ourselves serious doubts about some of the recent initial figures and information being provided to the media,” he told reporters this week.
“The risk we see is of the truth being lost, to be replaced instead by propaganda or exaggerated for reasons to do with false compensation claims.”