Afghanistan: Protests grow over civilian deaths

New protests erupted in Afghanistan this week as the number of civilians dying during U.S. and NATO attacks on insurgents continues to soar.

In the capital city, Kabul, hundreds of protesters blocked the highway to Pakistan Sept. 1. They were protesting the killing of a father and two of his sons — one of them an 8-month-old baby — during a post-midnight raid in eastern Kabul that Afghans said was conducted by foreign troops. The children’s mother was wounded in the attack. NATO’s U.S.-commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) later claimed no NATO or U.S. forces were involved.

In another incident the same day, the ISAF acknowledged accidentally killing three children in southeastern Paktika province.

Anger is growing among Afghans over the killings of around 700 civilians so far this year during U.S. and NATO military operations targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents.

The biggest single civilian toll occurred Aug. 22 when the Afghan government and the United Nations said as many as 90 civilians, including 60 children, died as a U.S.-led air strike hit a memorial service for a tribal leader in the western Afghan village of Azizabad.

U.S. military forces said this week that only five to seven civilians were killed there, along with 30 to 35 Taliban fighters. But an Afghan government investigating team confirmed the larger civilian toll Sept. 1.

Fox News reporter Oliver North, who was with the U.S. forces during the Azizabad attack, interviewed an unidentified U.S. major who cited reports the Taliban would meet there. But Afghan officials said clan rivals gave false information. North was a central figure in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal.

Afghanistan’s U.S.-installed President Hamid Karzai has strongly criticized the U.S. and NATO forces over the civilian toll, and has said the Taliban uses the deaths to turn people against the government. He is requesting a review of rules governing international military forces in the country.

Meanwhile, nearly seven years after the U.S. invaded the country following Sept. 11, conditions there remain grim. Some 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops, the majority from the U.S., have been unable to keep the Taliban from adding conventional military attacks to their longstanding smaller raids. U.S. military deaths are now well over 500, with over 100 killed so far this year.

As winter approaches, Oxfam International warns that as many as 5 million Afghans face severe food shortages, aggravated by rising food prices, drought and the growing and spreading insecurity.

In a report, “Falling Short,” issued earlier this year, Oxfam said reconstruction aid is falling far behind military spending, with much of the aid being allocated to urban areas rather than to rural regions and agriculture, where it is urgently needed.

Though some strides have been made in reducing the amount of land devoted to growing opium poppies, Afghanistan still provides a very large percentage of the world’s opium supply.

Many political leaders who urge an end to the Iraq war nonetheless view the war in Afghanistan as necessary to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But a number of commentators warn that a military solution is perhaps even less possible in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

In a report issued last month, the Rand Corporation called the idea of a “war on terror” counterproductive, and called for intelligence and police cooperation instead. Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart, writing in Time magazine, has warned that “a troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge, and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining.”

Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel recently wrote, “We need to think beyond the reflexive response of troop escalation and begin the necessary, tough search for sane alternatives. If Americans are given a clear choice,” she asked, “how many would support bleeding more lives and resources in another failing occupation as an effective strategy of combating terrorism and promoting our national security?”

mbechtel @pww.org