Pentagon disputes reports of 90 Afghan civilians killed in US airstrike

Officials say only five civilians died in last week's attack, but UN, Afghanistan say 60 children died in the strike.

A Pentagon inquiry has found that a controversial US airstrike in Afghanistan resulted in only five civilians deaths, not the 90 deaths reported by Afghan and UN officials. The disputed death toll has raised tensions between the US and Afghanistan, and has spurred Afghanistan to call for a status-of-forces agreement between the two countries. According to The Washington Post, the Pentagon's investigation concluded that last Thursday's airstrike on an Afghan village killed five civilians and 25 Taliban militants, including a commander.

"We did not kill up to 90 civilians as has been alleged," one U.S. military official said. The review "comports with our operational understanding" of the events, said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan were expected to present their findings to Afghan government officials – possibly including President Hamid Karzai – at a meeting Thursday, the officials said. The U.S. military planned to propose that the two sides conduct a joint investigation of the incident, they said. ...
The airstrike, which the U.S. military said took place after insurgents ambushed Afghan army commandos and coalition troops during a raid, came as U.S. and NATO forces escalated their reliance upon air power to combat an intensifying Taliban insurgency, in part because of a shortage of ground forces in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon's findings stand in sharp contrast to those of the United Nations issued Tuesday. Kai Eide, special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan, said that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) "found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men. 15 other villagers were wounded or otherwise injured."

[The UNAMA human rights] team met with the District Governor and local elders yesterday. They also interviewed people from a number of households in Nawabad village who confirmed to us that at around midnight on the 21st August, foreign and Afghan military personnel entered the village of Nawabad in the Azizabad area of Shindand district. Military operations lasted several hours during which air strikes were called in. The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident with some 7-8 houses having been totally destroyed and serious damage to many others. Local residents were able to confirm the number of casualties, including names, age and gender of the victims.

CNN reports that the Afghan government condemned the attack, with Humayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying that "The Afghan people and the Afghan government have lost their patience."

"We cannot see our children being killed in our villages or the killing of innocent people, and our hope and strong request is to reach a new agreement with the international community which clarifies all the conditions, so that in the future, the fight against terrorism should happen in the boundary of law, so that civilians are not affected," he said.

The Washington Post writes that the rising civilian toll, highlighted by last week's incident, has spurred Mr. Karzai to publicly call for a review of foreign troops operating within Afghanistan, as well as a formal status-of-forces agreement along the lines of one being negotiated in Iraq. But "the prospect of codifying the ad hoc rules under which U.S. forces have operated in Afghanistan since late 2001 sends shudders through the Bush administration."

The Afghan government "is not the most streamlined and efficient system," [an anonymous US official] said. "So you'd have a multiplicity of players on that side."

Less diplomatic U.S. officials frequently describe elements of Karzai's government as deeply corrupt and incompetent. Although most civilian war deaths in Afghanistan are caused by Taliban forces, those resulting from the highly visible airstrikes are a particular cause of public outrage that neither Karzai nor the administration can afford to ignore.

The other side of the equation is even more complicated. Of the 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 19,000 operate under U.S. Central Command, while 14,000 form the largest single component of a 40-nation force led by NATO under a U.N. resolution.
The disparate command structures have frustrated every government involved in the effort, but according to Afghan officials, they have also allowed diffused responsibility for civilian casualties, such as those of last week in the western part of the country. U.S. forces operate up to 90 percent of all strike aircraft in the country, and it is rarely clear whether an individual strike has been conducted as part of a NATO or U.S. operation.

In the disputed attack, it's also possible the airstrike was based on faulty information. The Associated Press writes that Afghan officials said last week's attack casualties from the US being manipulated into bombing civilians who had gathered for a memorial service.

[Three Afghan officials] said U.S. special forces troops and Afghan commandos raided the village while hundreds of people were gathered in a large compound for a memorial service honoring a tribal leader, Timor Shah, who was killed eight months ago by a rival clan.
The officials said the raid was aimed at militants supposed to be in the village, but they said the operation was based on faulty information provided by Shah's rival, who they identified as Nader Tawakal. Attempts to locate Tawakal failed.
Afghans targeted in U.S. raids have complained for years of being pursued based solely on information given by other Afghans who sometimes are business rivals, neighbors with a vendetta or simply interested in generic reward money for anti-government militants.

But FOX News' Oliver North, who accompanied US ground forces involved in the incident, reported that the soldiers came under fire from the Taliban immediately upon arriving at the village. Mr. North, known for his role in the Iran-Contra illegal arms deals during the Reagan administration, wrote that "To us – and the U.S. and Afghan troops we were covering – it appeared as though they were victorious." He also noted "careful treatment of non-combatants" by the commandos.

Despite the conflicting reports, the attack has sparked debate over the role of US airstrikes in Afghanistan and the military relations between the US and Afghanistan. The Economist writes that airstrikes have become a core part of US operations in Afghanistan, largely due to a lack of manpower on the ground, and that as a result, civilian casualties have been rising.

Ever since it bombed the Taliban from power in 2001, America has relied on air power in Afghanistan to make up for a shortage of troops. As the Taliban and other militants have gained strength, America has dropped more bombs, killing more civilians. Usually, as in Azizabad, the strikes are called in by American special forces, who are part of a counter-insurgency force that operates independently from Afghanistan's NATO-led peacekeepers.
According to American military figures, civilian deaths in airstrikes increased from 116 in 2006 to 321 in 2007. Over the same period, the number of American air-raids in Afghanistan increased by a third, and the number of bombs dropped doubled. Afghan officials say that in the past two months at least 165 civilians have been killed in four American airstrikes.
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