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Mounting civilian casualties threaten Afghanistan’s future

Posted By Philippe Khan

Civilian casualties are "becoming a heavy burden and we are not happy about it… Afghans are human beings too," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last Wednesday, following days of protests against civilian killings by foreign troops in the war-torn country. 

"The intention may be very good to fight terrorism, sometimes mistakes are made, but five years on, it is very difficult for us to continue to accept civilian casualties… It's not understandable anymore,” said Karzai, who has previously expressed regret for such deaths but continued to praise U.S.-led forces for their fight against the Taliban. 

Soon after Karzai made the comments, Afghan and UN officials said more than 50 civilians were killed over the past weekend in U.S.-led bombing raids and ground fighting in the western Herat province. 

According to an Associated Press tally, 151 civilians were killed in violence during the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on the U.S.-led coalition and NATO. The death toll doesn’t include those killed in Herat. 

Analysts say the growing civilian death toll is turning already wary Afghans against the presence of foreign troops in the war-torn country and is eroding their support for the fargile, U.S. backed government. 

"With every civilian life lost, the Afghan people get more angry," said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, which is based in Washington. 

"The U.S. military has a stake in avoiding that kind of resentment. They must now investigate incidents of civilian death following combat operations - and they should ensure the Afghan people see them do it," she added. 

Last month, a U.S. military investigation found that American soldiers went on a shooting rampage following an attack on their convoy on March 4, killing or wounding more than 47 innocent Afghan civilians. 

The dead included a one-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl, three women and elderly villagers, according to a report by the Afghan Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which said that the soldiers’ actions “constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards.” 

AHRC Deputy Director Nader Nadery said the shootings are not unprecedented.

"This is not an isolated case” he said, referring to a similar attack last May in which more than 76 Afghans, many believed to be civilians, were killed in U.S. air strikes on a village in southern Afghanistan.

Although opinion polls show that most Afghans do not back the Taliban, analysts say the growing death toll is being manipulated by anti-government forces to foment anger against both the Karzai government and foreign forces.

"Incidents causing civilian casualties will no doubt distance people from the international troops and their own government. It’s dangerous,” Nadery said. "The casualties are an easy propaganda tool for the Taliban to use in the affected areas… People feel under attack by both sides. This does not win hearts and minds.”

Afghan lawmaker, Shukria Barakzai, agrees, saying that civilian deaths could also ruin the public confidence in the fight against the Taliban. 

"Firstly it undermines the struggle against terrorists," Barakzai said. "Secondly such killings turn people against these troops… Obviously the sense of support and cooperation will be replaced by hatred and desire for revenge. It makes it easy for the enemy to use this against us." 

Afghans’ support for the 50,000 foreign troops in the country is already weak. Heavily armed soldiers in bullet-proofed convoys regularly force traffic off the roads. They also burst into homes in the middle of the night to carry out searches despite repeated calls from the Afghan government to cooperate with local authorities. 

Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of violence since the U.S. invaded in the country in late 2001, a recent report by global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. Although the rights group accused rebels and occupation forces of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, it criticized foreign troops for violating “the laws of war”, saying that 230 civilians were killed in U.S.-led or Nato operations in 2006. 

"There is no evidence that coalition forces intentionally target civilians, but in a number of cases international forces have conducted indiscriminate attacks or failed to take adequate precautions to prevent harm to civilians," the HRW report said.

 

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