Afghan civilian death toll undermines U.S. support
Afghan civilian deaths rise 39 percent. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pledges to do more to solve problem.
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The issue is also causing tension between Western forces and the Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for closer cooperation between the US, NATO, and Afghan forces. Afghan lawmakers are pushing for an agreement between international militaries and the Afghan government. "We want all international forces to be under Afghan government control and submit to Afghan law," says Hussein Sancharaki, spokesman of the National Front of Afghanistan, the main political opposition group.Skip to next paragraph
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But Stanikzai says this is unrealistic. "I don't think the US will submit to the authority of the Afghan government," he says. "They are concerned that if they do so, their ability to operate will be diminished and terrorism will flourish."
In the wake of last month's Herat Province attack, NATO announced that it was renewing its rules of engagement by reemphasizing existing protocols for house searches, use of aerial force, and cooperation with Afghan forces. NATO's top commander, Gen. David McKiernan, said that all house raids will be conducted with Afghan troops in the lead and only with the permission of the homeowners. NATO forces will also limit the size and weight of ordnance and bolster the communications between aerial crews and Afghan commanders on the ground.
After civilian casualties skyrocketed last year – foreign air strikes killed three times as many civilians in 2007 than in 2006 – NATO instituted the new rules of engagement and the rate of civilian deaths slowed considerably. However, the US, which mostly operates under a separate command structure from NATO, has looser rules of engagement and is responsible for a larger share of the civilian killings, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. An official with the US military's Public Affairs Office in Afghanistan said that he has not heard of any plans to revise the rules of engagement as NATO has done.
Human Rights Watch also said that higher numbers of civilian casualties resulted from increased use of American air power as opposed to ground troops. The deadliest aerial assaults are the result of unplanned "strikes of opportunity," the report states. "We found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets." Rather, most casualties occurred during unplanned "strikes ... carried out in support of ground troops ... after they came under insurgent attack."
In tonnage terms, the amount of bombs US forces are dropping is at an all-time high, and data suggest that American firepower is also becoming more accurate. In June and July, the US dropped roughly as much ordnance as in all of 2006, according to the US Air Force, but with fewer civilian casualties.
During Gates's visit, his spokesman announced that the US and the Afghan government will be creating a permanent joint investigative group to probe any incidents involving civilian casualties.
Some say the growing anger over civilian casualties is misplaced. The Taliban targets civilians and is responsible for more deaths than international forces. Yet tragic mistakes by Western militaries receive most of the attention, says a senior NATO official who asks not to be named when speaking about security issues. "This is a problem of perception – people should also understand the tremendous progress that is being made," he says.
But others say that the high civilian casualty rate helps the Taliban. "We are poor farmers. We had absolutely no opinion about America five years ago," says Sherafadeen Sadozay, who lost three children and his wife to an aerial attack in the Urozgan Province. "But now we don't think America is here to help us. If the Taliban will bring peace, we will support them."