Deaths in Afghanistan: Air Force Report Confirms Rising Civilian Toll

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It's all too often that the US military accepts civilian casualties as a necessary evil. An internal Air Force report describes its excessively violent methods as well as how officials have been trying to placate surviving family members with money.

Afghan citizens have frequently been the unintended victims of US military actions in their country.
AP

Afghan citizens have frequently been the unintended victims of US military actions in their country.

The wedding ceremony was winding down. The bride said goodbye to her family in the small village of Wech Baghtu in Afghanistan's troubled southern Kandahar Province. It was Monday, Nov. 3.

And then, all of a sudden -- as one of the wedding guests recalls -- an unknown man began shooting at a group of foreign soldiers posted near the village. The soldiers returned fire and called in air support. Helicopters and fighter planes arrived a short time later and began firing on the village.

Ten hours later, at least 36 village residents were dead, including women and children. Many Afghans were injured. Among them was the bride.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was outraged, as he has been after many such incidents in the past. The fight against terrorism, he said, "cannot be fought in our villages," and he demanded that the coalition troops do more to avoid civilian casualties. A few weeks earlier, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had promised the Afghan leader just that when he ensured Karzai that he would instruct his commanders and pilots to exercise greater caution in pinpointing their targets.

There have been times when artillary shells have killed innocent civilians after landing several kilometers off-target. That is what happened in Paktika Province in the country's southeast on July 19. In other instances, such as that of last Monday -- as well as on July 6 and other previous occasions -- wedding parties have been misidentified as groups of insurgents -- with deadly consequences.

A Worsening Problem

Following such attacks on innocent civilians, the generals routinely promise to improve the situation. But, in the war in Afghanistan, the number of civilian casualties continues to rise.

According to figures compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), between January and August of this year, 1,445 civilians were killed in the country, which represents 405 more deaths than occurred in the same period last year. The majority -- or 800 -- of the deaths can be blamed on the Taliban and other insurgents. Targeted suicide-bombing attacks on the population, for example, are part of their barbaric way of waging war.

The rest were victims of Afghan government troops or the international coalition forces. This does not exactly make these soldiers more popular among the people they are in Afghanistan to protect. Their allies are also becoming increasingly frustrated. "The trust we build," says a German soldier serving as part of a NATO deployment, "is often destroyed by the Americans and their air strikes." All too often, the pilots of American high-tech aircraft are not even capable of distinguishing between a band of armed Taliban and a group of civilians at a small-town ceremony.

Sites of some recent places in Afghanistan where there have been reports of civilian casualties from US military strikes.
DER SPIEGEL

Sites of some recent places in Afghanistan where there have been reports of civilian casualties from US military strikes.

According to US General David McKiernan, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the blame for this predicament lies in the paucity of soldiers. Having insufficient numbers, he says, repeatedly forces ground troops to request air support, which in turn increases the risk of civilian casualties.

An internal investigation, written by Michael W. Callan, a brigadier general in the US Air Force, reveals the deadly consequences of the American approach to waging war. Callan writes, for example, about an "air strike" on the village of Azizabad in Shindand District in Herat Province, in the country's far west, the night of Aug. 21, 2008.

According to reports from survivors, Afghan officials, human rights organizations and the UN mission in Afghanistan, about 90 civilians were killed in the attack, including 60 children and 15 women. At first, the US military denied that there had been any civilian casualties. At a later point, it admitted that an "estimated two women and four children" had been killed in the attack.

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