Mounting civilian casualties harming coalition stand in Afghanistan
* Indiscriminate firing and midnight house search operations driving civilians away from US-backed government
KABUL: Mounting civilian casualties in military operations against the Taliban are turning already wary Afghans against foreign troops based here and eroding the fragile support for President Hamid Karzai, analysts say.
After days of protests against innocent victims being killed by international troops, Karzai summoned top generals and diplomats to his palace Wednesday to reiterate years of complaints over blameless deaths. “Afghans are human beings too,” he told reporters afterwards. “What we are seeking is value to Afghan lives.”
Soon after the meeting, Afghan and UN teams announced their investigations found that around 50 civilians were killed in days of ground fighting and bombing in a remote valley in the western province of Herat. Also Wednesday, about 500 university students torched a flag in the eastern province of Nangarhar alleging six civilians were killed by US-led coalition troops on Sunday.
“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 US 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 said in a statement.
There is a danger the mounting casualties will play into the hands of the Taliban movement’s efforts against the government and foreign troops, said Nader Nadery, from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“Incidents causing civilian casualties will no doubt distance people from the international troops and their own government. It’s dangerous,” Nadery told AFP. “It will also provide an easy tool for the Taliban to use against the progress achieved over the past five years,” warned the rights activist. And civilian casualties threaten to ruin public confidence in the grinding fight against the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies.
“Firstly it undermines the struggle against terrorists,” said parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai. “Secondly such killings turn people against these troops,” she said. “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.” There is already simmering resentment among Afghans towards the 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan to help the US backed fledgling government forces stabilise the fractured country.
Aggressive soldiers in bullet-proofed convoys regularly force traffic off the roads. They also burst into homes in the middle of the night to conduct searches despite repeated calls from Karzai to work with local authorities and respect Afghan sensibilities. Anger towards the soldiers erupted into riots in Kabul in May last year after a coalition vehicle lost control and ploughed into civilians cars, killing a handful of passengers.
More recently there has been a steady rise in the number of civilians, including children, shot dead at checkpoints manned by foreign forces who opened fire after their warnings to vehicles to halt are ignored. Last month a unit of US Marines was withdrawn from Afghanistan after opening fire indiscriminately on civilians following an ambush in Nangarhar province. About a dozen people were killed, including two children.
Karzai’s government, widely accused of corruption and incompetence, is already “far short of gaining the real support of the ordinary people,” said senior Afghan journalist and commentator Ikhpolwak Safi. “When civilians die - obviously not for a good reason - and it is linked to his government, it will turn people against him,” he said. “Dropping bombs on villages because one individual has attacked them is not a wise thing to do. This is what the foreign troops have been doing,” he said. afp