Civilian casualties fuel Afghan conflict

KABUL (Reuters) – The killing of civilians in foreign military airstrikes is shattering Afghans’ support for keeping international troops in their troubled land and driving angry young men into the arms of the Taliban, analysts say.

International troops do not target civilians and say they do their utmost to avoid harming them, but even as Taliban suicide bombers kill more innocents, it is foreign forces and the Afghan government they support that bear the brunt of the backlash.

“Such acts provoke public hatred towards internal and foreign forces and force people to join the enemy who encourages them to carry out terrorist and suicide attacks,” said the state-run Hewad newspaper after the first of two controversial airstrikes this month.

First, Afghan officials say, U.S. aircraft killed 15 civilians in the northeast on July 4, then just three days later, hit a wedding in the east, killing 47, mostly women and children.

“The Americans will soon face new resistance with new motives if they continue such operations and do not care even a little about the lives of the people,” the state-run daily Anis said.

While the U.S. military first of all denied civilians had been hit, then launched what is likely to be a lengthy investigation, most Afghans have already made up their minds.

“Such arbitrary bombing raids and brutal killings have been repeated so many times during the past nearly seven years that now it is difficult to believe these foreign forces have come to our country for assistance,” the pro-government Weesa daily said.

“There is a perception problem,” said NATO’s civilian spokesman in Afghanistan, Mark Laity.

“But it is a perception problem not a reality problem. The reality is that we are very careful and the number of mistakes we make is very small.”

The perception though that international forces are not careful enough when launching airstrikes is becoming entrenched in Afghan public opinion, and officials have been known to make hasty claims of civilian casualties.

FOG OF WAR

The Taliban also claim troops wantonly kill civilians almost every day, adding to the fog of war.

The remoteness of most airstrikes, the speed with which bodies are buried and a cultural taboo against mostly male reporters seeing wounded women in hospitals also make verifying claims and counter-claims a major problem.

More than 250 Afghan civilians were killed by Afghan and foreign forces in the first six months of this year, the United Nations says. NATO disputes the figure and says it is much lower.

The Taliban have killed many more civilians, at least 450 so far this year, according to the U.N., and as many as 80 percent of the victims of suicide bombs are innocent bystanders.

Even so, after such attacks ordinary Afghans more often than not blame local and foreign security forces for failing to stop them from happening, rather than those who carried them out.

A suicide bomb attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last week that killed 58 people was no different.

“Such incidents in Kabul where, apart from Afghan security forces, a countless number of foreign security forces are based, show security bodies are in fact not capable of doing anything or they deliberately do not want to do anything and are involved in the incidents,” the independent Rah-e Nejat daily said.

Airstrikes by both NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan are either pre-planned targeted airstrikes, or in response to calls for assistance from troops in combat.

The level of preparation that goes into pre-planned strikes means mistakes are extremely rare, Laity said.

But when troops’ lives are threatened from militants firing from, for example a walled compound, “you are entitled to reply even if you cannot be 100 percent sure there are not civilians in the compound. That is the right of self-defence,” he said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for international troops to coordinate their operations more with Afghan forces so as to avoid civilian casualties.

But if most mistakes happen when airstrikes are called in during the heat of battle, it is hard to see how that could have an effect. Mistakes do and will continue to happen.

“The problem is this is a war,” Laity said.

“Although our weapons are remarkable and our people incredibly well-trained, although the rules of engagement and the principles under which we operate are of the highest standard, we are not perfect.”

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