WASHINGTON - Ramped-up U.S. and NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan are causing an increased civilian death toll, raising concerns about the fallout from civilian deaths on the war effort against the Taliban insurgency, according to a major new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released here Monday.
The 43-page report, "Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan", warned that the cost in civilian casualties caused by the increase in bombings goes well beyond the loss of human life and could put the nearly seven-year U.S.-NATO war effort at risk.
"The harm caused by airstrikes is not limited to the immediate civilian casualties," said the report, which also cited the destruction of homes and property and the displacement of their civilian occupants caused by the bombing.
"Civilian deaths from airstrikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taliban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director of HRW.
Citing HRW statistics, an editorial in Saturday's New York Times went further, asserting that civilian deaths caused by the stepped up bombing played into the hands of the Taliban and other insurgents: "America is fast losing the battle for hearts and minds, and unless the Pentagon comes up with a better strategy, the United States and its allies may well lose the war."
Fuelling a growing controversy here, both the Times and the report said that the increase in air attacks -- and the "collateral damage" they caused -- was due in part to the relative lack of NATO and U.S. troops on the ground whose fire tends to be considerably more discriminating in their impact than aerial attacks.
Both the Pentagon and leading Democrats have been arguing for months for deploying at least 10,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan but have been unable to overcome resistance by military commanders in Iraq who, backed by President George W. Bush, are reluctant to draw down troop levels there below the current 144,000. U.S. ground forces are so stretched globally that deploying additional forces to Afghanistan must await further withdrawals from Iraq.
The increased level of bombing has come as a result of a stepped-up insurgency led by anti-government Taliban fighters and associated groups. Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified dramatically over the past year. At least 540 civilians have been killed in the conflict so far this year, a sharp increase over last year's total. Casualties among the more than 60,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have also risen sharply this year.
U.S. and NATO forces, according to the report, dropped 362 tonnes of munitions in Afghanistan during the first seven months of this year, including a flurry of bombings in June and July that, by itself, nearly equaled the total amount of bombs, by weight, dropped by the coalition forces on suspected enemy positions in all of 2006.
"[...] While attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups continue to account for the majority of civilian casualties," said the report, "civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO airstrikes nearly tripled from 2006 to 2007 (from 116 to 321)."
That increase prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to demand changes in targeting tactics, including using smaller munitions, delaying attacks where civilians might be harmed, and turning over house-to-house searches to the Afghan National Army.
Those changes were adopted by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the result that, despite increased bombing during the first seven months of this year, fewer civilians (119) were killed compared to the same period in 2007.
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But that figure does not include a controversial air strike Aug 22 on the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan which, according to the Afghan government and a U.N. investigating team, killed 90 people, the vast majority of whom were women and children. The U.S. military, which carried out the attack, has insisted that 42 people were killed, 35 of them insurgents.
In some incidents, according to the report, U.S.-NATO air strikes may have violated the laws of war, particularly adherence to the principles of proportionality and the requirement that parties take all feasible precautions to prevent non-combatant casualties.
The report suggested that blame for civilian deaths can be focused fairly narrowly. While most foreign troops in Afghanistan operate under the banner of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a disproportionate number of civilian casualties resulted from air strikes called in by the nearly 20,000 U.S. troops who operate exclusively under U.S. command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Their rules of engagement, including when they can call for air support, are less strict than NATO's.
The most problematic engagements have come when insurgents take U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) by surprise, and the SOF call in air support. The military term, "troops in contact" (TIC), gave the HRW report its name.
In TIC situations, U.S. forces have often engaged insurgents who then retreat to nearby villages, taking up positions in homes and preventing their civilian residents from leaving.
Faced with a standoff, U.S. troops have called in rapid-response air support to bomb the homes from which they were taking hostile fire. That appears to have been what took place in Azizabad.
While condemning of Taliban "shielding" -- using civilian human shields or putting civilians at unnecessary risk so that when hurt, the story can be used as propaganda -- the report noted that this does not excuse U.S. forces from the laws of war and considerations of civilian populations.
The report outlined several incidents where questionable rapid-response bombings caused civilian deaths. In one of them, two anti-government fighters were seen entering a compound that was then hit with an airstrike that caused nine casualties.
The U.S. claimed to have killed the two insurgents, but a local Afghan authority denied the claim, and journalists at the scene found no evidence supporting it. Moreover, U.S. troops and local villagers said that U.S. forces had visited the home the day before and should have known that civilians were present.
"The available information about the attack -- in particular evidence suggesting that U.S. forces knew the house was inhabited by civilians and that only two lightly armed fighters may have been present -- raises serious concerns that the airstrikes violated the international humanitarian law prohibition against disproportionate attacks," said the report.