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Winning Afghans’ hearts & minds: Another failed mission

Posted By Philippe Khan 

More than 25 civilians, including nine women and three young children, were killed in southern Afghanistan in an air strike called by British forces last Thursday. Yesterday, the Nato-led force in the war-ravaged country confirmed reports that its troops shot two Afghan men in the southern province of Helmand on Sunday morning, killing one of them. 

Such incidents have become common in Afghanistan, leading to a growing number of civilian deaths and sparking Afghans’ anger. While rebel attacks claimed the lives of more than 178 civilians since the start of June, foreign troops killed at least 203, according to an Associated Press tally based on figures from Afghan and international officials. 

Moreover, figures from the United Nations and an umbrella organization of Afghan and international aid groups show that the number of civilians killed by Western forces last month was almost equal to those killed by militants. According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), 230 civilians have been killed in U.S. and Nato military operations in May, roughly the same number killed in rebel attacks in the same period. The ACBAR tally is based on numbers provided by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Afghan NGO Security Office and the United Nations. 

But UN and ACBAR figures don’t include June, which witnessed a spike in military operations and rebel attacks, ultimately leading to a growing number of civilian casualties. However, it’s almost impossible to know the exact death toll in a country ravaged by war. Much of Afghanistan's violence takes place in remote areas that are too dangerous for independent observers to reach, and it’s common that figures cited by international forces, the UN or Afghan officials vary widely. 

Further complicating death toll counts is the fact that some Afghans do not report deaths, preferring to bury their dead soon after they’re killed according to Islamic laws. Such deaths aren’t always included in casualty tolls. 

What is clear is the political fallout from the growing death toll: President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly urged foreign forces to exercise caution and work more closely with Afghan forces, who could avoid civilian casualties because they know the country better than foreign troops. On Saturday, Karzai said more than 90 civilians have been killed in U.S. or NATO operations in the past 10 days alone. Although he condemned the Taliban for targeting civilians, he directed most of his anger at Western troops for being careless and viewing Afghan lives as "cheap."

"Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such," Karzai said, accusing Nato and U.S. forces of "extreme" and "disproportionate" use of force. 

Hours after Karzai voiced his harsh criticism of such careless operations, Nato-led forces fired a rocket from Afghanistan that landed in neighboring Pakistan, killing nine civilians, including a child and a woman. 

Condemning the deadly attack, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said Nato needs to act more carefully when carrying out its military operations, adding that Saturday’s military operation underscored the need for improved coordination. “Only Pakistan can carry out operations on its soil... Sometimes there is a lack of coordination when Nato is conducting its own operations. We do not want any action by Nato on our side. We have protested against the current incident. We condemn the killing of innocent civilians," she said. 

Responding to Karzai’s earlier criticism, a Nato spokesman said the Afghan president had a right to be "disappointed and angry" but insisted that Nato soldiers do their best to avoid civilian casualties. The United States, on the other hand, claimed that many civilians reportedly killed by international troops may have been killed by “insurgents”.

But such arguments often fail to calm the growing Afghan anger, according to Michael Shaikh, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. 

"When you're on the ground and your child has been killed by a 2,000-pound bomb, you don't care if the attack was legal or illegal in the laws of war. You care if your son or daughter was killed," Shaikh said. "That's what NATO is not getting. They need to be doing it cleaner and doing it better. Every death has a profound effect on the Afghan population.” 


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