Toll Of Civilians NATO Killed Was Worst Since It Took Over

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
November 14, 2006
By David Rohde and Taimoor Shah
KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 13 — A joint NATO and Afghan investigation has found that a nighttime NATO air attack killed 31 civilians in southern Afghanistan last month, the highest civilian death toll since NATO took over security in the south in August.
The results of the investigation were relayed by a senior NATO official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release them.
The civilian casualties come at an important and delicate time for NATO forces here. When NATO took over operations in the south it promised to win support and bring stability by focusing on development instead of combat. But fighting and suicide bombings continue.
Lt. Gen. David Richards, the British commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said that as much as seventy percent of the population in the south is “on the fence,” unsure whether to support the Taliban or the country’s American-backed government.
If NATO cannot deliver development and security this winter, he has warned, the southern population could turn against the government. Interviews last week with survivors of the NATO air attack suggest that the incident might severely damage NATO’s reputation among Afghans.
The investigation found that many of the civilians were nomadic shepherds who had fled their tents with their wives and children after a NATO bomb struck a nearby compound, killing 20 Taliban fighters, according to the NATO official.
When the surviving Taliban fighters fled the compound, a C-130 gunship, armed with heavy machine guns and cannons, strafed nearby fields. NATO ground forces also fired mortars into the area.
Eighteen dead civilians were found scattered in one field. Ten civilians were found dead in a ditch. Three more lay nearby, according to the senior NATO official, who declined to say how many women and children perished. Only two Taliban fighters who fled the compound died.
“You had insurgents on the move, and civilians on the move as well, and they got caught up in it,” said the NATO official. “We’re very regretful.”
The Oct. 24 air attack in the village of Lakani sparked widespread condemnation from Afghan civilians and officials. At the time, residents of the Panjwai district claimed that as many as 80 civilians had been killed.
Afghanistan has endured its heaviest fighting this year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, with suicide bombings tripling and several thousand resurgent Taliban battling NATO forces in the south. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers, police officers and civilians and at least 143 American and NATO troops have died.
On Sept. 17, NATO forces announced that they had successfully cleared Taliban fighters from the Panjwai and Zhari districts of Kandahar Province after weeks of fierce fighting, but suicide bombings and clashes have continued.
The two districts are the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban and strategic locations that can be used to attack the nearby city of Kandahar. NATO forces continue to use artillery and airstrikes in the heavily populated area.
Abdul Ghafoor, a 45-year-old shepherd, said he was sleeping in a tent with his wife, four sons and two daughters when a bomb struck the nearby compound. After they fled the tent, the “big plane targeted us directly,” he said, apparently referring to the C-130 gunship. Mr. Ghafoor, who was wounded in the arm, said that he and his 2-year-old daughter survived. His wife, four sons and the other daughter were killed.
Saifullah, a 55-year-old shepherd who uses only one name, said the plane gunned down a half dozen members of his family. “We came out with my family members,” he said. “The plane targeted us and killed my young sister on the spot.”
Rahmatullah, a 40-year-old Afghan who uses one name, said the plane circled the area for hours, firing on anyone who moved in nearby fields. His daughter was killed.
The NATO official said the air attack occurred after Taliban fighters massed in a compound two miles from a base holding Afghan government forces and a small number of NATO special forces soldiers. That morning, the Taliban had attacked the base, the official said.
NATO forces spent more than one and a half hours confirming that Taliban were present in the compound before ordering the air attack, the official said. Taliban were heard communicating by radio, the official said, and were observed by an aerial drone and ground forces. NATO soldiers were unaware that shepherds were in the area, the official said.
David Rohde reported from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar Province.