Posts Tagged ‘Helmand’

Exclusive, on-the-ground interviews obtained by Brave New Foundation’s Rethink Afghanistan project confirm what NATO forces repeatedly denied: U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan killed dozens of people in the Sangin District of Helmand Province on July 23.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office first acknowledged the incident when they condemned the killings on July 26. At that time, the Afghan National Directorate of Security claimed that the American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) killed “52 civilians…including women and children” in a “rocket attack.” (The Kabul government later revised that tally to 39.) By Sunday, August 1, there were protests in the streets of Kabul.

ISAF immediately attacked the credibility of the Afghan government’s report, complaining bitterly of Karzai’s decision to condemn the incident without conferring with U.S. and allied forces.

Working with our team in Afghanistan led by Anita Sreedhar, Brave New Foundation‘s Rethink Afghanistan campaign sent an intrepid local blogger into Sangin–one of Afghanistan’s most volatile areas–to get the truth. The video interviews he obtained are incredible and horrifying. We made the full interview transcripts available online at http://rethinkafghanistan.com, and we encourage you to read them. Here’s the short version: Every survivor our interviewer talked to confirmed that a massive civilian casualty event occurred, and that NATO was responsible.

NATO vs. the Kabul Government

ISAF began their push-back against press accounts of the Sangin incident with a simple press release on July 24: “We have no operational reporting that correlates to this alleged incident.” No further press release available on the ISAF website expands or updates this statement. However, ISAF personnel soon ratcheted up their attacks on the Afghan government’s narrative and, in the process, circulated alternative (and often contradictory) official responses, tallies and accounts of the event.

Quoted in a July 27 New York Times article, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith (whom you might remember from that embarrassing and horrific event in Gardez earlier this year) escalated ISAF’s push-back by claiming Karzai’s office’s account was premature and speculative.

“Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded…We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known.”

On August 5, ISAF spokespeople still claimed to lack information on the outcome of this promised “joint investigation.” However, that didn’t stop other ISAF officials from offering “speculations” of their own. Brigadier General Josef Blotz, for example, claimed that Afghan and coalition forces examined images of the scene and interviewed witnesses but found “no substance in terms of proof or evidence” to support Karzai’s claim. He did, however, concede that "one to three civilians may have been inadvertently killed.”

Later, again on August 5, while ISAF provided quotes from named sources for attribution that denied knowledge of the outcome of the investigation, an unnamed “senior intelligence official” told The New York Times that six civilians died with eight Taliban fighters when a troop fired a Javelin rocket into a structure from which U.S. Marines took fire.

When asked to explain the discrepancy between his tally and that of the Afghan government, the unnamed official cited “political challenges,” as if “political challenges” account for a 33-person difference in the death tallies. This explanation reminds one of the Gardez massacre earlier this year, when ISAF tried to pass off its blatant lie about an American special forces team finding women “bound, gagged and executed” as a “cultural misunderstanding,” when in fact they’d killed the women themselves and tried to dig the bullets out while one of them was still alive, screaming in pain. In effect, this unnamed source accused Afghan locals and officials of lying about civilian deaths because of hard feelings between them and the coalition.

What is going on here? One explanation might be that ISAF engaged in the same type of damage control campaign utilized in other horrifying incidents like the Farah airstrike and the Gardez massacre. In both cases, ISAF initially denied wrongdoing, aggressively attacked the credibility of alternative accounts that disputed the official story, and claimed that the evidence was either neutral or exculpatory. Only when new information made it impossible to deny responsibility did ISAF admit its guilt in both cases. Perhaps we’re seeing a repeat of that behavior here.

Regardless of the source and possible motivation for all this contradicting information and blatant disinformation, what is clear, based on interviews obtained by our team on the ground in Sangin, is that ISAF troops killed dozens of civilians on July 23.

What We Found

52 people were killed! We don’t know how many children or women! …The rest of my family is scattered and lost I don’t know where they are. …My mind doesn’t work okay. … My daughter’s in laws were sitting in our house with their other children when the bombing started I saw them get killed with my own eyes!

–Mahmoud Jan Kaka

I saw a child on the floor was injured. I thought he was the only injured one so I took him to the clinic. When I came back my nephew told me that there were more injured people. I tried to pull my daughter from the rubble but I couldn’t. I heard her calling for help but I couldn’t reach her.

–Abdul Zahar

In all of my experiences not the Russians or the Taliban ever did what they (N.A.T.O.) did. …I wanted to go to the government post and tell them to kill the rest of us too as we have nothing to live for anymore!

…In the morning we see bodies with heads, blood and guts everywhere, arms here and legs there. All of my loved ones who were still alive were soaked in blood. We tried to go and identify the bodies; everyone was looking for there missing relatives. There was so much sorrow and pain from those people who were lost in shock.

–Unnamed Sangin Resident 1

See the full transcripts.

The most important takeaway from these interviews, aside from the universal attribution of blame to NATO, is that there is absolutely no way that the civilian death toll is in the single digits. One person described losing eight family members; another said he lost nine loved ones; still another lost 11. One of the men, Abdul Barg, insisted that, “the number of martyred were no less than 35 up to 50.” He also related that “every family in the village was placing at least a couple of their loved ones in a bag.”

These video interviews prove what NATO wants to deny. As you watch the footage of these Afghan men and hear their voices crack, it becomes sickeningly clear. U.S. and allied forces killed dozens of Afghan civilians in Sangin.

This incident is more than a moral outrage: it shows why the Afghanistan War undermines our safety. Thanks to the work of the National Bureau of Economic Research, we know that, statistically speaking, every time an incident like this happens, we can expect an additional six attacks on coalition forces. But we don’t have to generalize from this incident to see the threat when the specifics spell it out so clearly:

More than 200 people demonstrated over the July 23 incident in the Sangin district of Helmand province… The protesters shouted "Death to America" and carried banners calling for justice and pictures of children they say were killed in the strike…

This is what our elected officials need to understand: when we debate the war in Afghanistan, it’s not an academic exercise. It’s a string of specific incidents like Sangin, concrete moral outrages that pay us back with increased strategic risk.

Our reaction to Sangin and the other similar catastrophes defines us. That’s why when I go into a voting booth this November, or I get a solicitation for a political donation or a request to volunteer for a federal candidate, I’m going ask, “How did this person respond when he or she heard that we slaughtered the heart of a village? Did this person explain it away? Did they continue to support a policy that ensured more Sangins all across Afghanistan? Or did they finally catch themselves, finally realize that this war ensures the slow death of more children under rubble while parents claw at the pile?” These are the questions I’ll ask myself before I punch the touch-screen at the local library, and if the opinion polls are any indication, I’ll be far, far from alone.

I encourage all of you to visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com to send a note to your elected officials and let them know you’ll be watching what they do in response to this disaster, and that you’ll remember it when you vote in November.

Defense Secretary Gates wants to extricate himself and the president from the impending P.R. disaster shaping up around the flailing Kandahar operation set for this Summer Fall.

“I think it’s important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan,” Gates said in comments that appeared to play down a U.S.-led operation for control of the area, known as the birthplace of the Taliban.

“Kandahar and Helmand are important but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle,” he said.

From the Pentagon’s most recent Afghanistan report to Congress, here’s a chart showing how optional Kandahar and Helmand are for the success of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy being pursued by U.S. and allied forces.

Kandahar and Helmand....meh.

Kandahar and Helmand....meh.

From p. 126 of the Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan (April 2010), emphasis mine:

8.1:  ISAF Strategy

Under the ISAF concept of operations, the main effort is to conduct decisive clearing operations concentrated on the most threatened population in the southern part of the country to establish population security and implement measures that diminish insurgent influence over the people.  As described in Figure 23 – ISAF Concept of Operations, the main effort in RC-South, by province, is in Helmand and Kandahar, where efforts are focused on clearing districts most threatened by insurgents.

No reporter should let Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, or President Obama off the hook in the coming months regarding the make-or-break nature of the Kandahar operation for their (poorly) chosen COIN strategy in Afghanistan. As described in the report to Congress, Kandahar/Helmand is the main effort, and everything else is either a “shaping,” “supporting,” or “economy of force (read: leftovers)” operation. Kandahar/Helmand is the COIN strategy. If ISAF fails there, it fails, period.

Members of Congress considering funding the ongoing Kandahar/Helmand/escalation strategy should read these comments from Secretary Gates with alarm. He’s hedging and trying to set expectations because he knows the COIN effort is in serious, “bleeding ulcer” trouble. Congress should save us all a whole lot of trouble and vote against the $33 billion war spending supplemental under consideration. As Daniel Ellsberg says in the most recent Rethink Afghanistan video, this war can be infinitely prolonged, but “winning” through military force is a pipe dream that’s killing people.

UPDATE: ISAF and the Pentagon are now comically denying that they ever planned an “offensive” in Kandahar, emphasis mine:

The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, insisted that there never was a planned offensive. “The media have chosen to use the term offensive,” he said. Instead, he said, “we have certainly talked about a military uplift, but there has been no military use of the term offensive.”

Sure, the media chose the word “offensive.” Specifically, the American Forces Press Service (in a story cross posted on the Pentagon website and the ISAF website!), quoting one Maj. Gen. Nick Carter:

The general stressed that the planning and execution of an offensive in Kandahar are Afghan-led initiatives directed by President Hamid Karzai. The provincial governor is reaching out to his city and district mayors to engage the population and build relationships with the population, he said.

Carter said he expects the offensive to begin in the “next month or two,” and that by Ramadan, which begins in August, security improvements will begin to be apparent. It will take some three months before a strong, credible government is formed in Marja, he said, leading him to believe that it could take just as long, if not longer, to sway public support and perception in Kandahar.

For more use of the word “offensive” in posts on ISAF’s website, see here and here.

According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, U.S. and Allied forces have killed and injured more civilians than have the insurgents during Operation Moshtarak. Incredibly, the Pentagon continues to insist that this operation "protects the people." AIHRC’s Feb. 23 press release reports [h/t Josh Mull, our new Afghanistan blog fellow]:

"AIHRC is concerned at the loss of life and civilian harm already caused by this operation. AIHRC found that in the first 12 days of Operation Mushtarak 28 civilians, including 13 children, were killed and approximately 70 civilians, including 30 children, were injured.

"Witnesses suggested the majority of the casualties were caused by PGF artillery and rocket-fire."

Late last year, just after the President announced his escalation, I wrote:

The president’s decision to add more troops is a mistake that will result in deep costs which we cannot afford; increased U.S. casualties; and increased civilian casualties as our troop increase further raises the temperature in the conflict.

A separate update from Brookings shows that President Obama’s escalation and subsequent military operations have indeed raised the temperature of the conflict, increasing the level of violence across Afghanistan:

“In terms of raw violence, the situation is at a historic worst level, with early 2010 levels of various types of attacks much higher than even last year at this time. Much of that is due to the recent Marja campaign and, more generally, the deployment of additional U.S. (and Afghan) troops to parts of the country where they have not been present before.”

War does not protect civilians. War doesn’t make us safer. The Afghanistan war needs to end, now.

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Military officials say that civilian casualties in Marjah, Afghanistan are “inevitable” as U.S. and allied forces launch Operation Moshtarak, the largest military action since the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Thanks in part to conflicting messages from ISAF and in part due to some residents’ inability to flee, many civilians remain in Marjah, in the crossfire.

Statements from Brig. Gen. Nicholson, commander of the operation, indicate that he feels he has leeway to use airstrikes in the civilian area, and that he intends to use fast, furious attacks to try to overwhelm the Taliban. The problem: airstrikes in support of troops in contact are the leading cause of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.

All of this is very, very bad news for civilians in Marjah. And it’s bad news for the troops in the fight as well.

Cross-posted at Rethink Afghanistan.

AFP reports that a NATO airstrike from a helicopter gunship killed three civilian men and wounded a woman in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) press release claims the helicopter crew fired at men placing IEDs next to the road and afterwards “discovered civilians in a car adjacent to the IED site.”

On Thursday, a “roadside mine” killed another seven civilians in Kandahar province.

Expect more civilian casualties as President Obama’s latest escalation sends more troops into Kandahar. Most civilians killed by insurgents die from IEDs and suicide attacks, while airstrikes in support of troops in combat account for most civilians killed by NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When this summer’s Operation Khanjar pushed into Helmand province, anti-Kabul-government forces responded by laying more IEDs, which led to a severe spike in civilian deaths.

Based on the Helmand experience, we know sending more troops into insurgent-controlled areas will mean IED attacks. We know new IED attacks will mean many more civilian deaths, not to mention the number of civilians that will be directly killed by U.S. forces. We’re doing it anyway. The people who will be killed have a right to life that exists independently of our goals in the region. We’re essentially making a decision for them that it’s better for them to be dead than under the thumb of the Taliban. If they want to make that decision, fine, let them. But that’s not our decision.

End the war in Afghanistan. Bring the troops home.

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. The views expressed are his own. Sign our CREDO petition to reject escalation in Afghanistan & join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

“Loyalty to the community is…morally tolerable only if it includes values wider than those of the community.”
–Reinhold Niebuhr, one of President Obama’s “favorite philosophers,” in The Irony of American History, p. 37.

According to The New York Times, the new plan in Afghanistan will involve sending large new deployments of troops into insurgency-prone areas like Khandahar and Khost. Operation Khanjar earlier this year did likewise, and the results from that operation show that concerns about Afghan civilian casualties take a back seat to the U.S. government’s goal of dislodging the Taliban from their traditional strongholds.

Note the graph below, which summarizes casualty data compiled by the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan for January – August 2009. Following Operation Khanjar’s initial thrust into Helmand province, the rate of civilian death attributed to the conflict skyrocketed.  Roughly as many civilians died in Afghanistan the two months following the launch of Khanjar as died in the prior 6 months. According to a U.N. spokesperson who responded to my email inquiries, “the overwhelming majority” of those deaths occurred in the south.

Civilian Casualty Information from UNAMA

Source: UNAMA public casualty data and private correspondence.

Most of the civilian deaths were caused by IEDs. The simplest explanation for the rise in the casualty rate would be that as our troops moved into insurgent strongholds in Helmand, the insurgents responded by either laying more IEDs or laying them in more populous areas, and the IEDs killed civilians. This certainly falls in line with the expectations of Joint IED Defeat Organization Director Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, paraphrased by Stars and Stripes on October 28, 2009:

IED attacks in Afghanistan have gone up along with the rising troop levels and likely will continue to increase if more U.S. forces are sent there…

Operation Khanjar could be viewed as a dress rehearsal for the much larger deployment of U.S. troops planned for early next year. The U.S. military expects the reaction to a new deployment will be a rise in IED attacks. We know new IED attacks will mean many more civilian deaths, not to mention the number of civilians that will be directly killed by U.S. forces. We’re doing it anyway.

This brings to mind a question asked by Wendell Berry in his “Questionnaire:”

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

At least we answered the second half of the question.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Say no to escalation in Afghanistan by signing our CREDO petition at http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/saynotoescalation/. For each signature, CREDO will donate a dollar to support Crowe’s work. You can also join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter to show your opposition to the war. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan since launch of new operation in Helmand:

  • NAME NOT RELEASED YET
  • NAME NOT RELEASED YET
  • NAME NOT RELEASED YET
  • NAME NOT RELEASED YET
  • NAME NOT RELEASED YET
  • NAME NOT RELEASED YET
  • Aaron E. Fairbairn, Private 1st Class, age 20
  • Justin A. Casillas, Private 1st Class, age 19
  • Charles S. Sharp, Lance Corporal, age 20

I cannot find any confirmed civilian casualties in news reports regarding the operation. Let’s hope that’s because none yet exist.

War is not Christ’s way. Congress and President Obama: end this war.