An errant attack last week on civilians by U.S.-led coalition forces has widened a rift between the Afghan government and the international community that may change the nature of foreign military operations in Afghanistan.
The United Nations this week agreed with assertions by the Afghan government that at least 90 civilians died in a U.S.-coordinated air strike Aug. 22 in the west of the country, more than half of them children. If true, the incident amounts to one of the deadliest civilian tolls since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
But a Pentagon review found the number to be far lower, with five civilians killed. Pentagon officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, because the review has not been released publicly, that a rival clan provided misleading information that prompted the attack and that 25 militants were killed during the operation.
The AP reported that the U.S. government was pressing for a joint U.S.-Afghan probe in the hope of reaching a common conclusion about the incident and that it was unclear Friday whether the results of the review had been accepted by the Afghan government.
The timing of the incident could not be worse for NATO forces and the embattled Afghan government, which is faced with waning public confidence and a resurgent Taliban. Continued attacks resulting in civilian deaths have called into question the government´s ability to manage foreign troops, as well as the coalition´s counter-insurgency strategy.
President Hamid Karzai, up for re-election next year, has vehemently condemned the attack and ordered a full review of international troop operations. He has pledged to push for a ban on air strikes against civilian targets and strict limits on the detention of Afghan civilians and domestic searches.
He is backed by an angry phalanx of officials in the defense and interior ministries, members of parliament, and independent rights organizations.
“The government of Afghanistan has repeatedly discussed the issue of civilian casualties with the international forces and asked for all air raids on civilian targets, especially Afghan villages, to be stopped,” the government said in a statement.
In early July, a U.S. air strike killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, as they were traveling to a wedding party in eastern Nangarhar province, an official Afghan probe found.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the issue of civilian casualties at a news conference on Thursday.
“We work exceptionally hard to minimize any collateral damage - zero collateral damage is the goal,” Adm. Mullen said. “We know that when collateral damage occurs, that it really does set us back, so we worked exceptionally hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
According to U.N. estimates, Afghan and international troops were responsible for 255 of the nearly 700 civilian deaths caused by fighting between January and May. The total number of civilians killed during that period jumped by two-thirds compared with 2007.
This is due in part to more aggressive insurgent activity in rural village areas. The Taliban is said to spread false information to bait NATO forces into self-defeating air strikes on civilian targets, part of a broader strategy that has of late shown signs of getting bolder and better coordinated.
On Aug. 18, a total of 10 French soldiers died and another 21 were wounded in an attack 30 miles outside the capital, Kabul. A day later, hundreds of militants and a group of suicide bombers assaulted one of the largest U.S. bases in the country, located in the south.
Earlier this month, insurgents also killed three foreign aid workers and their Afghan driver. Another Japanese man was confirmed dead Wednesday, bringing the total number killed this year to 24 - more than all of last year.
Some international aid agencies are considering withdrawing from the country.
Washington has responded by ordering the redeployment of hundreds of additional Marines from Iraq to Afghanistan to boost the ranks of coalition forces, which are now dying at a faster rate than those in Iraq.
But some observers say troop levels are beside the point if the effort to win hearts and minds is undone by civilian deaths.
“Foreign forces indeed must appreciate that it is not just the military requirement or legal justification that has to be considered for each bomb, but also the potentially wider psychological and strategic impact,” says a new report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank that monitors conflicts.
The Taliban is readily exploiting attacks on civilians as part of its backcountry propaganda war to brand coalition forces as occupiers, the report notes, adding that NATO must be more accountable and transparent in investigating civilian casualties to gain back trust.
The U.S. military initially defended the operation in Herat province´s Shindand district, an area where Taliban militants are known to be active, saying it was called after a coalition patrol was ambushed. But the military did acknowledge charges that the operation “may have resulted in civilian casualties apart from those already reported.”
U.N. investigators who visited the scene and interviewed survivors, local officials and eyewitnesses said they found “convincing evidence” that about 90 civilians were killed.
Kai Eide, the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, said several homes were destroyed and many others seriously damaged. Shards of shrapnel littered the ground.
It was unclear Friday when the results of the Pentagon investigation would be made public.
Results from a military inquiry into the July bombing of the wedding party in Nangarhar province have yet to be released.
Hundreds of Afghans reportedly turned out the day after the Shindand air strike to denounce the United States. And for the past week, the state-run national television station has aired stories highlighting rising anti-American sentiment among Afghans.
Mohammed Rahman, a street vendor in downtown Kabul, shook his head when asked about the latest attack on civilians.
“The Taliban comes and bombs our people here, the [Americans] bomb us, too,” he said. “How long can this go on? This is enough.”