Air war costs NATO Afghan supporters

An increase in air strikes has led to more innocent deaths as Taliban fighters use civilians as human shields.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At a large gathering with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in this southern city last Tuesday, Abdul Ghafar sat among hundreds in the audience, clutching a piece of paper. On it were the names of 20 members of his family killed two months ago in a NATO airstrike.

"This was my uncle's family. Eleven children, six women, and three innocent men were killed. He lost everyone but one small girl," he said. Mr. Ghafar was hoping to receive compensation from the Afghan government. "We got nothing," he said.

Ghafar's extended family in the southern Panjwai district are among the nearly 4,000 people killed since the beginning of 2006 in a Taliban resurgence that is using civilians as human shields against escalating NATO air attacks.

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The US-based Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,000 of those killed were civilians. A recent spate of suicide bombings here has stoked public anger even further.

The increased violence has left NATO generals begging for more troop contributions from reluctant member nations. Just Sunday, the French defense minister announced plans to withdraw the 200 special forces troops deployed under US command in southeastern Afghanistan.

But with so few boots on the ground, the increased reliance on air power has led to thousands of civilian deaths. The devastating air offenses are undermining support for the Afghan government, say human rights workers and Afghan officials, and are turning public opinion in the four southern provinces of Afghanistan against NATO forces, who took command of the south from the US in August.

The US Air Force dropped 987 bombs between June and November and fired some 146,000 cannon rounds as air support for NATO allies in the south. US aircraft fired more bombs in the first six months of this year than in the first three years of its campaign against the Taliban, according to figures released by the Pentagon.

President Karzai's meeting last Tuesday of NATO and US generals, ambassadors, and Afghan ministers in Kandahar – southern Afghanistan's largest city and a former Taliban stronghold – was an attempt to examine better methods for tackling the insurgency and curbing civilian deaths.

But even as top military officials met, NATO troops posted at a checkpoint in Kandahar shot and killed a local tribal elder who was driving a motorbike. The man had failed to heed warning signals as he drove to the meeting with Karzai.

The Tuesday visit came three days after Karzai wept openly on national television about his helplessness to protect the Afghan people from US, NATO, and Taliban violence.

"We can't prevent the coalition from bombing the terrorists, and our children are dying because of that," he said with tears in his eyes during a speech to mark International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10. At the Kandahar meeting, Karzai saved some of his harshest criticism for his Pakistani neighbors, a country he says has been actively helping the Taliban.

"The problem is not Taliban, we don't see it that way," Karzai told reporters. "The problem is with Pakistan."

"NATO's strategy has eroded support for its mission as well as for Karzai – nothing could be more telling than Karzai weeping and complaining about NATO killing Afghan civilians," says Sam Zia-Zarifi, Asia research director for Human Rights Watch.

"We are extremely worried – it hurts us, it hurts Afghan civilians. We are worried by it, NATO is also worried by it, and we are working together to reduce such casualties," President Karzai told reporters in Kandahar. "We know that is damaging to our image, and more importantly we do not want to harm innocent people."

In contrast to the US, NATO has no unified approach to compensating civilians killed during fighting, instead placing the financial burden on the individual nations engaged in the fiercest fighting in the south: Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, and Romania.

By providing much-needed financial aid for the families of victims killed by airstrikes, the Taliban has been able to garner support in the southern provinces, says Sarah Holewinski of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based human rights group.

"If NATO doesn't find a way to win the trust and support of the Afghan people, the Taliban will," she says. "In fact they already are."

Fighting against Taliban insurgents who are dressed in civilian clothes and hidden among the civilian population is a difficult task. But the sharp escalation in violence has many southern Afghans asking whether NATO troops are making their lives safer or, ultimately, more dangerous.

Many Afghans in Kandahar say that they would prefer NATO convoys to avoid the city, because they act as magnets for suicide bombs and the NATO soldiers tend to shoot indiscriminately into crowds.

"When we see a military convoy coming we stop our car and leave it where it is. We run and we hide," says Neamatullah, who fled his village in the nearby Panjwai suburb after NATO airstrikes in May killed dozens of civilians. "Both sides are fighting each other for power," he says. "But our lives and homes are ruined."

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