Afghans angered by civilian deaths

The Baltimore Sun

ZERKOH, Afghanistan -- Scores of civilian deaths over the past months from heavy U.S. and allied reliance on airstrikes to battle Taliban insurgents are threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance.

Afghan, U.S. and other foreign officials say they worry about the political toll the civilian deaths are exacting on President Hamid Karzai, who the week before last issued another harsh condemnation of the U.S. and NATO tactics, and even of the entire international effort here.

What angers Afghans are not just the bombings, but also the raids of homes, the shootings of civilians in the streets and at checkpoints, and the failure to address those issues over the five years of war.

Afghan patience is wearing dangerously thin, officials warn.

The civilian deaths are also exposing tensions between U.S. commanders and commanders from other NATO countries, who have never fully agreed on the strategy to fight the war here, in a country where there are no clear battle lines between civilians and Taliban insurgents.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, military commanders and diplomats alike say they fear that divisions within the coalition and the loss of support among Afghans could undermine what until now was considered a successful spring, one in which NATO launched a broad offensive but the Taliban did not.

"There is absolutely no question that the will and support of the Afghan people is vitally important to what we do here," said Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the U.S. commander of the International Security Assistance Force. "We are their guests; they are the hosts. We have to be mindful of their culture, we have to operate in the context of their culture, and we have to take every possible precaution to not cause undue risk to those around us, and to their property."

But U.S. officials say that they have been forced to use air power more intensively as they have spread their reach throughout Afghanistan, raiding Taliban strongholds that have gone untouched for six years.

One senior NATO official said that "without air, we'd need hundreds of thousands of troops" in the country. They also contend that the key to reducing casualties is training more Afghan army soldiers and police officers.

The anger is visible here in this farming village in the largely peaceful western province of Herat, where U.S. airstrikes left 57 villagers dead, nearly half of them women and children, on April 27 and 29.

The accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and U.S. officials - and suggested just how badly things could go astray in an unfamiliar land where cultural misunderstandings quickly turn violent.

The U.S. military says that it came under heavy fire from insurgents as it searched for a Taliban commander and weapons caches and called in airstrikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.

But the villagers denied that any Taliban were in the area. Instead, they said, they rose up and fought the Americans themselves after the soldiers raided several houses, arrested two men and shot dead two old men on a village road.

After burying the dead, the tribe's elders met with their chief, Hajji Arbab Daulat Khan, and resolved to fight U.S. forces if they returned. "If they come again, we will stand against them, and we will raise the whole area against them," Hajji Daulat Khan warned.

Or in the words of one foreign official in Afghanistan, the Americans went after one guerrilla commander and created a hundred more.

On Tuesday, barely 24 hours after U.S. officials apologized publicly to President Karzai for a previous incident in which 19 civilians were shot by Marines in eastern Afghanistan, reports surfaced of at least 21 civilians killed in an airstrike in Helmand province, though residents reached by phone said the toll could be as high as 80.

While NATO is now in overall command of the military operations in the country, many of the most serious episodes of civilian deaths have involved U.S. counterterrorism and Special Operations forces that operate separately from the NATO command.

NATO, which now has 35,000 soldiers across the country, has emphasized its concern about keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Yet NATO, too, has been responsible for civilian casualties over the past year, as it has relied on air power to compensate for a shortage of troops, a U.S. military official who has served in Afghanistan said in a recent interview.

The subject of civilian casualties was the source of intense discussion Wednesday in Brussels when the secretary-general of NATO met with the North Atlantic Council, the top representatives of the coalition. But the conversation was less about how to reduce casualties, according to participants, than about how to explain them to European governments, who say their troops are there for reconstruction, not hunting the Taliban or terrorists.

"The Europeans are worried about a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the counterterror mission," said one participant in the debate. "They are worried that if NATO appears responsible for these casualties, it will result in a loss of support" for keeping forces in Afghanistan.

But it is not only the Americans whose practices are in question. NATO soldiers have frequently fired on civilians on the roads, often because the Afghans drive too close to military convoys or checkpoints.

The public mood hardened against foreign forces in the southern city of Kandahar after British troops fired on civilians while driving through the streets after a suicide bombing last year, and Canadian soldiers have repeatedly killed and wounded civilians while on patrol in civilian areas.

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