Civilian deaths in Afghanistan from US and Nato air strikes have nearly tripled over the past year, with the onslaught continuing in 2008 and fuelling a public backlash, a leading human rights group says today.
The report by Human Rights Watch Human Rights Watch says that despite changes in the rules of engagement which had reduced the rate of civilian casualties since a spike in July last year, air strikes killed at least 321 civilians in 2007, compared with at least 116 in 2006. In the first seven months of this year at least 540 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting related to the armed conflict, with at least 119 killed by US or Nato air strikes, such as this July’s attack on a wedding party which killed 47, says Human Rights Watch.
“There has been a massive and unprecedented surge in the use of air power in Afghanistan in 2008,” the report says. It found that few civilians casualties were the result of planned air strikes on suspected Taliban targets. Instead, most were from air strikes during rapid response missions mostly carried out in support of “troops in contact” - ground troops under insurgent attack. Such strikes included situations where American special forces - normally small in number and lightly armed - came under insurgent attack.
“In response to increased insurgent activity, twice as many tons of bombs were dropped in 2007 than in 2006,” the report says. “In 2008, the pace has increased: in the months of June and July alone the US dropped approximately as much as it did in all of 2006. Without improvements in planning, intelligence, targeting, and identifying civilian populations, the massive use of air power in Afghanistan will continue to lead to unacceptably high civilian casualties.”
“Mistakes by the US and Nato have dramatically decreased public support for the Afghan government and the presence of international forces providing security to Afghans,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The report criticises the response given by US officials when civilian deaths occur. Before conducting investigations, US officials often immediately deny responsibility for civilian deaths or place all blame on the Taliban, the report says.
US investigations have been “unilateral, ponderous, and lacking in transparency, undercutting rather than improving relations with local populations and the Afghan government”.
Last night the US military announced it would reopen its investigation of an air strike last month in which the Afghan government says 90 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed. An initial US inquiry found that up to 35 suspected insurgents and seven civilians died in the attack on Azizabad in Herat province, but General David McKiernan, the senior US officer in Afghanistan, announced a review in the light of “new information”. Afghan and western officials say that videos of the bombing’s aftermath shows dozens of dead civilians.