“I also made it clear that the United States will work with our Afghan and international partners to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties as we help the Afghan government combat our common enemy,” US President Barack Obama promised. He received his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari at the White House on Wednesday, the same day when the police chief of the Farah province, in southern Afghanistan, said the US Air Force’s airstrike on the village of Bala Buluk on Monday, to free the Afghan troops attacked by guerrillas, had resulted in more than a hundred victims, mostly civilians. As usual, investigations were launched by US and Afghan authorities, as well as by UN representatives.
This kind of “blunder” — which the militaries prefer to dress up in a more technical term “collateral damage” — is common in Afghanistan, especially on the part of the US Air Force, known for its “robust” rules of engagement. According to the United Nations, 2,118 civilians were killed by violence in Afghanistan in 2008, the most deadly year for the people of Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 — an increase of almost 40% over 2007. The UN Assistance Mission in Kabul (UNAM) regularly draws up a precise assessment of civilian casualties.
Already in January, thousands of people in the town of Mehtar Lam, 60 km east of Kabul in the province of Laghman, held a demonstration — “spontaneously,” according to an RFI correspondent — after what appeared to be another mistake by the US military. In the streets of Mehtar Lam, according to the RFI journalist, “Many said they were ready to join the jihad against foreign forces, to stop these blunders.”
Aware of the disastrous effect of this kind of incidents, President Karzai regularly denounces these “mistaken” airstrikes, which add to the population’s hostility to the “occupying forces” and to his own government, which is already accused of inaction. General Petraeus, Commander in Chief of the US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia (CENTCOM), has taken this rising anger into account in implementing the US forces and the NATO’s new strategy in Afghanistan, which emphasizes development and joint civilian-military operations to try to “win the hearts and minds.”
“High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack,” the American NGO Human Rights Watch noted last September, adding that “Civilian deaths from airstrikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taliban.”
The NGO regularly condemns the “lack of transparency” of US authorities, who are slow to recognize their mistakes. Thus, after a raid on the village of Azizabad in the province of Herat on the 22nd of last August, which killed 90 civilians, mostly women and children, the “Operation Enduring Freedom” coalition, commanded by the United States, acknowledged — following an internal investigation — only the death of “five to seven” civilians and 30 to 35 Taliban, denying the assessments of the UN and Kabul. Furious, President Hamid Karzai went so far as to suggest a renegotiation of the terms of the presence of international forces in the country.
In principle, these strikes are planned and conducted only after a series of “green lights” signaled by the chain of command. The procedures of engagement, for example in the case of the French fighter squadron stationed at the NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base in Kandahar — in order to minimize mistakes — require “targeting” by a team of forward air controllers (called “TacPy”1) deployed on the ground as well as “visual sighting” by the pilot before any missile launch.
These “high-tech” strikes from the sky against the rebels, to say the least, convey the image of unequal battle — the epitome of the famous “asymmetry” often mentioned in today’s conflicts — even the image of “Western” punishment meted out to an occupied population. They have no justification on a purely military level, unless definite identification of the enemy is possible, which is of course not even the case anyway.
According to the NATO, the Taliban attacks in the first four months of this year are up 73% over last year, presaging a particularly “hot” summer.
1 See a video on this topic at the bottom of the left column of the Web site of the Ministry of Defense.
The original article “De bavure en bavure en Afghanistan” appeared in Défense en ligne, a Le Monde diplomatique blog, on 7 May 2009. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).