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Story Publication logo May 7, 2009

Losing Hearts and Minds and Lives in Afghanistan

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In 2008, there were over 2,100 civilians casualties across Afghanistan. US airstrikes accounted for...

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Afghanistan is in an uproar following U.S. airstrikes that may have killed more than 100 civilians in the western part of the country. Reports from Farah province said that on Thursday a mob of several hundred protesters chanted anti-American slogans and threw rocks outside at provincial governor's office before being disbursed by police gunfire. In Kabul, outraged lawmakers called for new laws to clamp down on foreign military operations. Ahead of talks with President Obama in Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai bluntly said the deaths were "unjustifiable and unacceptable."

Details of the attack are still vague. On Monday, free-ranging Taliban militants reportedly came upon an Afghan police checkpoint and killed three officers. When Afghan Army units arrived to back them up, they encountered stiff resistance and called in U.S. air support. The International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed that "dozens" died in the ensuing bombardment, including women and children. Afghan officials alternately say between 100 and 150 people died in their homes, where miltants were using them as human shields. A team of U.S. and Afghan investigators is now examining the scene. See pictures from recent fighting in Afghanistan's dangerous Korengal Valley.)

Some of the victims have already been buried in accord with Islamic custom, Belquis Roshan, a woman on Farah's provincial council, told TIME by telephone. But if the higher total is confirmed, it would amount to the deadliest single attack on civilians since the American-led invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001. Worse, it's part of a growing pattern. According to U.N. figures, 2,118 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence last year, a jump of nearly 40% compared to the year before. Of that figure, pro-government forces were responsible for 828 deaths. (See how Afghanistan's travails have been interpreted by local artists.)

With 20,000 U.S. troops set to arrive in Afghanistan in the months ahead, some worry that more forces will mean more contact with the insurgents. Western military planners counter that the extra boots on the ground will lessen the dependency on airpower — and the risk of civilian deaths. Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says it's "too soon to judge" whether changes in coalition policy are making a difference since the fighting season in Afghanistan has just begun. However, says Nadery, what's certain is that the Taliban continue to use civilians as human shields "as an effective PR strategy" to turn public opinion against the government. (Read a story on why the Afghan war has lasted so long.)

The bombing in Farah is a case in point. Abdulkarim Sharifi, a resident of the province, says locals have already lost faith in the government because militants are visible "everywhere," sometimes traveling in convoys of 10 to 15 vehicles in plain view of Afghan security forces who dare not leave their walled compounds. "They are so free to move around that some actually think the U.S. is helping them," he said by phone. Roshan, the councilwoman, insists the U.S. forces have done just that by killing people they were sent to protect. "The Taliban are murderers, but when the U.S. is guilty, it's a massacre," she says. "If the situation goes on like this, the whole country will one day become Taliban."

So far, U.S. officials have acknowledged that anti-Taliban bombardments were carried out while declining to comment on the extent of civilian casualties. In expressing regret over the incident, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the joint investigation would take time to come up with answers. Meanwhile, Gen. David McKiernan, commander of US forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan, moved to cast doubt on the emerging narrative. "We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties," he said, without providing further details.

This scenario is frustratingly familiar for many Afghans. Last August in Herat province, which borders Farah to the north, Afghan and U.N. officials found evidence that up to 90 civilian had perished in a U.S. operation. The military initially disputed the findings, saying no civilians had died, only Taliban. But after a high-level investigation, widespread protests and heavy pressure from President Karzai, the military revised the civilian death toll to 33. In the aftermath, McKiernan issued a directive that commanders in the field err on the side of caution when fighting near populated areas, opting for disengagement rather than hot pursuit.

News of the latest incident came not long after NATO announced a significant reduction in conflict-related civilians deaths over the first quarter of this year versus the same period in 2007. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the coaltion spokesman, said this was a function of stricter protocols. Since last summer, he explained, the decision-making process down the chain of command has been "reviewed numerous times" to minimize risk to civilians, resulting in more operations cancelled. "But," he pointed out, "you never hear news reports of an airstrike not taking place."

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