Afghanistan’s interior ministry says US-led forces killed 76 civilians in an Aug. 20 operation—directly contradicting the US military, which said 30 suspected Taliban died. “Seventy-six people, all civilians and most of them women and children, were martyred during the operation by coalition forces in Shindand district of Herat province,” the ministry said Aug. 22. “Nineteen women, seven men and the rest children all under 15 years of age,” were killed in the operation, the statement said—one of the highest civilian deaths tolls since the 2001 US-led invasion.
Akramuddin Yawer, the police chief for western Afghanistan, said that Taliban militants were among the dead but their numbers were unknown. Daoud Sultanzoy, an Afghan MP, told Al Jazeera that when NATO air-strikes target the Taliban in villages and civilian areas, it is difficult to distinguish them fighters civilians. “With either good or bad intelligence, the most important lesson to learn from this is that we need to rely more on ground troops,” he said. “Since NATO and the coalition don’t have these troops, the reliance on air support is greater. So, if they can increase their ground operations it would probably alleviate some of these problems.”
However, Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, provided different figures, saying only five civilians—three women and two children—were killed. “Planes bombed the area and in the result, 25 Taliban were killed, including two famous commanders,” Azimi said. “Unfortunately, five civilians were killed and one woman and a boy were wounded.
The air-strikes in question were called in response to an attack on troops operating in Laghman province, which adjoins the Sarobi area where 10 French soldiers were killed earlier in the week. According to the US military statement, the attacks were called when the area was clear of women and children. Some 200 civilians were seen fleeing prior to the air-strikes, and there were no civilian casualties, the statement said.
The issue of civilian casualties caused by foreign forces fighting the Taliban has led to a rift between the Afghan government and its Western backers. President Hamid Karzai said this month that air attacks by foreign forces had succeeded only in killing civilians and not in winning the war. (AlJazeera, Aug. 23)