Afghanistan: NATO blames civilian deaths on “asymmetric warfare”

From CTV, Oct. 28:

NATO’s top commander apologized Saturday for civilians killed during battles between NATO-led forces and the Taliban militia in Afghanistan this week.

The death of a civilian “is something that causes anybody in uniform to lose a lot of sleep,” U.S. Gen. James L. Jones said at a news conference at Bagram, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgents use civilian populations as shields, making it difficult to avoid civilian casualties, he said.

“Sadly, in asymmetric warfare, when you’re battling an insurgency, typically the insurgents do not play by the same rules that we would like to play by,” said Jones.

Afghan officials estimate that battles between NATO-led troops and insurgents in southern Afghanistan killed 30 to 80 civilians this week, including women and children. NATO said it counted 12 civilian deaths.

The apology comes in the wake of a complaint made by Human Rights Watch on Friday that said NATO’s tactics in Afghanistan are putting civilians at risk and turning the Afghan people against Western troops.

“While NATO forces try to minimize harm to civilians, they obviously are not doing enough,” said Sam Zarifi, the group’s Asia research director.

The New-York based international rights organization also had harsh words for the Taliban, criticizing the insurgents for endangering civilians “by using populated areas to launch attacks on NATO and Afghan government forces.”

The International Red Cross has also asked all sides in the conflict to avoid putting civilians at risk.

Human Rights Watch said that NATO’s reliance on aircraft attacks on insurgents is responsible for most of the civilian deaths.

The U.S. Central Command reported 340 air strikes in Afghanistan in June, twice the number — 160 — of air strikes launched in Iraq that month, the rights group said.

Maj. Luke Knittig, speaking for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, admitted that “careful application” of air strikes is mandatory. But “airpower is used extensively because it is an advantage and it can be decisive at a close fight,” he said.

NATO provides medical care to injured civilians and financial aid to their communities, he noted.

The NATO-led force with 32,000 troops took over operations in Afghanistan in September. The alliance has been fighting Taliban insurgents in the south and east in the worst violence the country has seen since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.

Meanwhile, a statement issued Saturday attributed to Taliban leaders rejected negotiations with President Hamid Karzai’s government as long as foreign troops are still in Afghanistan.

Alleged to be from Taliban militia spokesman Muhammad Hanif, the statement was e-mailed to The Associated Press on Friday. It rejected Karzai’s invitation to talk and called his administration a “puppet government” for the West.

Karzai reiterated Friday that he would negotiate with Taliban leader Mullah Omar if Pakistan’s support for the insurgents ended.

Karzai contends that Omar is hiding in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Pakistan maintains that the refugee leader is in Afghanistan.

Karzai’s government has come to terms with hundreds of Taliban supporters and their officials during the last two years, but high-level talks with the insurgent’s leaders have proved elusive.

Fighting has increased drastically since Karzai made a similar offer to negotiate in an interview with AP last January.

See our last post on Afghanistan.