Afghanistan: US Investigation of Airstrike Deaths ‘Deeply Flawed’

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Afghanistan: US Investigation of Airstrike Deaths ‘Deeply Flawed’

New Administration Should Revise Policies to Reduce Civilian

NEW YORK - The US military's investigation into deadly
and controversial airstrikes in Azizabad in Afghanistan in August 2008
was deeply flawed, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

On October 1, 2008, the Department of Defense published a summary of
a report by Brig. Gen. Michael Callan of its investigations into US
airstrikes on the village of Azizabad in Herat province on August
21-22, 2008. Since that time, Human Rights Watch has conducted
additional research into the events surrounding the Azizabad
airstrikes, reviewed the facts presented in the summary, and analyzed
the Callan investigation's methodology.

"The weaknesses in the Callan investigation call into question the
Defense Department's commitment to avoid civilian casualties," said
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Unless the new Obama
administration urgently addresses the US military's airstrike practices
in Afghanistan, more unnecessary civilian deaths and injuries will
result."

Separate investigations conducted by the United Nations, the
government of Afghanistan, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights
Commission concluded 78 to 92 civilians had been killed at Azizabad,
the majority of them women and children. For weeks after the incident,
the US strongly rejected all three investigations. An initial US
military inquiry by the Combined Joint Task Force 101 concluded that no
more than five to seven civilians and 30 to 35 Taliban fighters had
been killed. In various media interviews, US officials suggested that
the villagers were spreading Taliban propaganda.

After the release of video showing significant numbers of civilian
dead, and strong criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the
UN, the US announced on September 7 that it would conduct a new
investigation led by General Callan.

The Callan report summary accepted a larger figure for the number of
dead - 33 civilians - but rejected the much higher civilian death tolls
reported by the UN, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and
the Afghan government, and criticized their methodology. It failed to
acknowledge any flaws in the initial US assessments, and it dismissed
villager testimony as financially or politically motivated.

The summary concluded that the US attack on insurgent forces in
Azizabad was "necessary" and "proportional," failing to acknowledge any
possible mistakes in US intelligence. It exonerated the US forces who
carried out the attack of any wrongdoing without providing a basis for
its conclusions, and suggested without evidence that Taliban forces
deliberately used civilians as "shields."

Flaws in the Callan investigation that may have led to a lower US
estimate of civilians killed include: the dismissal of villager
testimony about numbers killed, the rejection of consistent claims
that some graves contained more than one body, and the assumption
that almost all the men who died were insurgents.

"There was great hope in Afghanistan that the Callan report would
provide a credible and detailed analysis of the Azizabad airstrikes,
place blame where it fell, lead to appropriate disciplinary action, and
result in operational changes that would avoid such tragedies in the
future," said Adams. "Unfortunately, this has not happened."

Human Rights Watch recommended that the US government: 

  • Ensure that air attacks comply with the legal obligation to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians.
  • Stop using airstrikes in densely populated areas unless the
    intelligence is highly reliable and the target has been visually
    identified. It is critical that US forces improve their assessments on
    the ground before they employ close air support, taking into account
    the risk of misinformation or disinformation from sources.
  • Refrain from using 105mm howitzers or similar area-effect weapons against targets in densely populated areas.
  • Thoroughly investigate the collateral damage- and battle
    damage-assessment processes to determine how they can be improved to
    reduce civilian casualties, and make appropriate changes.
  • Provide accurate and timely information on civilian casualties in military operations.
  • Take responsibility for civilian casualties when that is warranted
    and take appropriate disciplinary or criminal action against those
    responsible.

Human Rights Watch urged the Defense Department to publicly release the Callan report.

"We deeply regret the Pentagon's decision not to declassify and
publish the full report of the Azizabad investigation," said Adams. "In
the interests of bringing to public attention the investigation's
methodology, analysis, and findings, we urge Defense Secretary Gates to
reconsider that decision."

Human Rights Watch said that the US and its allies have made some
positive operational changes and commitments to try to reduce civilian
casualties, particularly in Tactical Directives issued on September 2
and December 8 and in various statements to the media by political and
military leaders.

"The US still needs to change its policies and practices on
airstrikes to end the string of attacks that have caused so much loss
of civilian life," said Adams. "Otherwise the planned arrival of
20-30,000 more troops in Afghanistan may lead to greater, not fewer,
civilian deaths."

In September 2008 Human Rights Watch issued a report on the problem
of civilian casualties from airstrikes, "‘Troops in Contact':
Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan" (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/09/08/troops-contact-0), which made detailed recommendations of ways to avoid civilian casualties.

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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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