Afghan civilian deaths mount

J Hamin, M Monir & F Tanha

As concern mounts about increasing civilian casualties in battles between coalition troops and Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, a team of parliamentarians is preparing for an on-the-spot probe of non-combatant deaths in Panjwayi district.

About 90 civilians were killed in two International Security Assistance (ISAF) air strikes last week in Kandahar province. However, ISAF spokesman Major Luke Knittig of the US army said “we killed 38 insurgents through very careful targetting of specific insurgents groups trying to infiltrate into Zhari and Panjwayi.” The alliance said its reports found that 12 civilians were killed, but Afghan officials estimated the number at between 30 and 80, including many women and children. The district, about 35 km west of Kandahar city, witnessed nearly two weeks of intense fighting during Operation Medusa, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led coalition’s largest offensive against the Taliban.

On October 30, Afghanistan’s Lower House of Parliament, Wolesi Jirga, nominated seven members to visit Panjwayi and submit a report on civilian deaths. All seven are members of the internal security and complaints commission of Parliament. According to Pacha Khan Zadran, an MP from Paktika province, civilians were dying in the fighting because of the lack of coordination between the NATO-led foreign troops and Afghan security forces. He was echoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai views expressed on October 27: “Where Afghan forces have control, losses are less, coordination is better. Our directives are respected there.” He urged the international community to strengthen Afghan forces. “Terrorism cannot be eliminated with military operations in Afghanistan villages. The root of terrorism is not in Afghanistan,” he asserted.

Human rights groups and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have condemned the civilian deaths and called on the alliance to prevent civilian suffering. A press statement from UNAMA reiterated that civilian casualties were unacceptable. Sam Zarifi, Asia research director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that NATO tactics were increasingly endangering civilian lives and creating hatred among the local population against the alliance. Criticising NATO, the statement said the recent operations had resulted in the killing of dozens of civilians. The group also slammed Taliban for using populated areas to launch attacks on NATO and Afghan forces. Zarifi said NATO forces were not doing enough to minimise civilian casualties. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering civilians they are supposed to be protecting and turning the local population against them.”

In a separate statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has urged “all parties to the conflict” to respect the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). “All parties to the conflict must at all times take all feasible precautions to spare civilians and their property from the effects of attacks,” says the ICRC statement. It says hostilities in Afghanistan have intensified over the past few months putting the lives of civilians in danger. Civilian casualties from roadside bombs, suicide attacks, bombardments and ground offensives have increased, which is of serious concern, says the release.