Strike reverberates beyond Afghanistan
By Charles Fromm
WASHINGTON - Amid growing European discontent over the war in Afghanistan, the
head of United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces
apologized on Monday for an air strike that killed at least 27 civilians in the
central part of the country on Sunday.
"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," General
Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF), said in a statement. "I have made it clear to our forces that we
are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring
civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission."
McChrystal continued: "We will re-double our efforts to regain that trust."
Sunday's attack consisted of a US helicopter firing on several
vehicles as they traveled towards Kandahar, the largest city in southern
The political implications of the attack, which, according to some reports was
carried out by helicopter-borne US Special Operations Forces (SOF), could be
serious, not just in Afghanistan itself but also in Europe and Canada, were
electorates have become increasingly opposed to their militaries' involvement
in the war.
This is especially true in the Netherlands, whose government collapsed on
Saturday amid negotiations on whether to keep troops in Afghanistan. The air
strike took place in a district controlled by the Dutch army, whose role, if
any, in the attack has yet to be clarified.
The attack was carried out on the apparently mistaken belief that a convoy of
vehicles was transporting Taliban fighters toward eastern Helmand province,
where US and allied forces have launched a major offensive. That it took place
in an area where Dutch forces are concentrated is likely to strengthen those
factions in the Netherlands opposing any extension in The Hague's participation
in the war beyond August.
The Dutch troops have been central in the war effort, despite their low
numbers. The New York Times reported last week that the Netherlands - whose
troop contribution to the Afghanistan mission is one of the highest per capita
- has been subject to a higher casualty rate than other coalition forces,
including the US, because of its troop postings in the dangerous southern
province of Oruzgan.
This is the most lethal incident in which civilians were killed by US-led
forces since last September, when a German-ordered air strike on fuel tankers
hijacked by the Taliban killed 140 people, the majority of whom were civilians.
The strike at the weekend came despite the implementation of stricter rules of
engagement regarding strikes ordered by McChrystal last summer when he took
command of NATO/ISAF. ISAF officials insisted on Monday that the attack is
being investigated to determine whether it violated those rules of engagement.
In a statement released on Monday, ISAF officials said, "Yesterday, a group of
suspected insurgents, believed to be en route to attack a joint Afghan-ISAF
unit, was engaged by an airborne weapons team resulting in a number of
individuals killed and wounded. After the joint ground force arrived at the
scene and found women and children, they transported the wounded to medical
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently condemned the killings of
civilians by US and NATO forces but has found himself largely powerless in
terms of effecting change.
"The repeated killing of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable, we strongly
condemn it," Karzai's cabinet said in a statement issued in Kabul. It said 27
civilians, "including four women and one child", were killed in the attack.
In another effort to improve the perception of ISAF forces, McChrystal revised
the rules of engagement last summer to counter the rising numbers of civilian
deaths attributed to coalition troops, and the increasing resentment toward his
occupying army and the corrupt Afghan government that accompanies it. The shift
in policy restricted the use of air strikes to situations where coalition
forces were in imminent danger.
Though McChrystal's policy is thought to be responsible for a downturn in the
number of civilian casualties, it is not clear that this has translated into
meaningful improvements for everyday Afghans. According to the United Nations
Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the number of civilian casualties
caused by coalition forces dropped by a third last year. However, the number of
people killed by the Taliban and other militants rose by about 40%. The result
is that the number of civilian deaths has increased 15% since last year,
according to UNAMA.
In another effort to mitigate popular backlash surrounding these deadly
attacks, a compensation system for death, injury or damage resulting from
coalition operations was devised. According to the Associated Press, the death
of a child or adult is worth US$1,500 to $2,500, loss of limb and other
injuries $600 to $1,500, a damaged or destroyed vehicle $500 to $2,500, and
damage to a farmer's fields $50 to $250.
The protection of the population is central to the coalition forces' mission in
Afghanistan, according to McChrystal's statement.
As long as violence persists, it becomes almost irrelevant who is causing it,
says David Wood, a veteran US war correspondent. "The perception among most
Afghans is that the United States is responsible when Afghans are killed," he
wrote last week in Politics Daily.
"It may seem counterproductive for the Taliban to deliberately kill civilians,
as their strategic goal is to win the support of the population against the
government in Kabul and its foreign backers. But counter-insurgency experts say
intimidation tactics are extremely effective - at least for a while."
UNAMA reported that 2009 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan
since the toppling of the Taliban regime by US forces in 2001.
This latest incident comes during the largest offensive yet for US-led
coalition and Afghan forces, which have been fighting to secure the former
Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Helmand province.