'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 1) 

UPDATE 2: According to the Guardian and The Independent, the number of civilian dead in Hyderabad has been reduced to 45. First, the Guardian account:

Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has called for an investigation into reports that 45 innocent Afghans were killed in a Nato-led air assault in the south of the country, the latest in a series of attacks which an incensed public is calling "civilian massacres".

Clashes began on Friday when Taliban fighters ambushed a joint US-Afghan military convoy, which was attempting to clear the Helmand river of Taliban positions.

The international forces, including British troops who suffered fatalities on Saturday and yesterday, then called in air strikes on houses in the village of Hyderabad, in Helmand's Gereshk district where they said insurgents were sheltering.

Despite ongoing fighting, an Afghan team of investigators was able to establish that 62 Taliban were also killed during the attack, said Dur Ali Shah, the mayor of Gereshk, and Muhammad Hussein Andewal, the provincial police chief.

Hyderabad resident Muhammad Khan told the Associated Press that the air strikes killed seven members of his family, including his brother and five of his brother's children. A "lot of dead bodies" were buried on Saturday, he said by telephone.

The International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) admitted some innocent villagers had died but denied the toll reported by the two Afghan officials.

"We had evidence of less than one dozen apparent civilians who were killed in that engagement," said Major John Thomas, spokesman for Isaf, the Nato-led force tasked with bringing stability to Afghanistan.

Isaf has repeatedly lamented the Taliban's tactic of dispersing among the Afghan population, blaming them for innocent loss of life.

"The civilian dead that we surveyed were in a trench line, in an enemy position, where the Taliban were using heavy machine guns, mortars, small arms and rocket propelled grenades," he said.

While Mr Karzai has condemned the Taliban for using human shields, he has also said the foreign soldiers consider Afghan lives "cheap".

For completists, here is the one in The Independent.

UPDATE 1: According to the Washington Post, the death toll from the air strikes in the city of Hyderabad in Helmand province may now be 100 or more:

Just a week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai chastised international forces for being "careless," Afghan officials reported Saturday that possibly 100 or more civilians had been killed in a NATO and U.S.-led assault.

The battle in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, which was prompted by a Taliban ambush, began Friday night and continued into Saturday morning, Afghan officials said. It ended with international forces bombing several compounds in the remote village of Hyderabad.

"More than 100 people have been killed. But they weren't Taliban. The Taliban were far away from there," said Wali Khan, a member of parliament who represents the area. "The people are already unhappy with the government. But these kinds of killings of civilians will cause people to revolt against the government."

Another parliament member from Helmand, Mahmood Anwar, said that the death toll was close to 100 and that the dead included women and children. "Very few Taliban were killed," he said.

Spokesmen for the international forces acknowledged that civilians were killed in the battle, though they disputed the numbers. Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for the NATO force, said the civilian death toll was "an order of magnitude less" than what Afghan officials reported.

Thomas said U.S. ground forces helping to carry out a NATO mission had come under fire by Taliban insurgents using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Thomas said the troops responded by firing on insurgents who were shooting from a compound and a network of trenches. U.S. helicopters and NATO bombers were later brought in for support, he said.

Thomas said troops returned to the area after the battle and found what appeared to be civilian bodies among the dead insurgents in the trenches. "This confirms for us again that militants are willing to fire from among civilians," he said.

"We are deeply saddened by any loss of innocent lives," U.S. Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition forces spokesman, said in a statement. "Insurgents are continuing their tactic of using women and children as human shields in close combat."

Karzai has not accepted that argument, repeatedly criticizing international troops for not doing more to protect noncombatants. After a series of particularly deadly incidents in June that Karzai blamed on poor coordination, he told reporters that international troops would have to "work the way we ask them to work."

A war to eliminate al-Qaeda was transformed into one to eradicate the Taliban. This is the inevitable consequence, as will be our eventual defeat. We are not far from NATO spokespeople describing much of the populace of the countryside as Taliban, because, how else to justify the escalation in violence being used to such horrible effect? One naively wonders, will the perpetrators of these attacks some day be brought before The Hague? Doubtful, of course. As already mentioned below, people angered by these killings have other means to register their displeasure, and we should anticipate that they will do so.

ORIGINAL POST: It seems to get worse and worse with each passing day:

Anti-Taliban air strikes by US- and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan killed 65 villagers including children, a local official said Saturday, amid growing anger here over civilian deaths.

The toll from Friday's operation in the southern province of Helmand given by a district mayor was the highest since 2001, when US-led forces used heavy bombing in their campaign to drive the extremist Taliban from power.

It was impossible to independently verify the number of civilians killed in Girishk district, as the area is remote and difficult to access, but local residents also claimed that scores had been killed and wounded.

Of course, this is just the worst of several such incidents in recent weeks, such as this one and this one, and, back in March, this one. It is quite remarkable that the Europeans are so willingly participating with us in these killings, this apparent effort to punish provincial Afghans for their unwillingness to support the suppression of the Taliban.

Someday, a tireless historian will document how NATO was transformed from a military alliance created for the purpose of confronting the prospect of Russian armour spilling into West Germany through the Fulda Gap into one conducting nearly daily airstrikes in Helmand province reminiscent of the Condor Legion's assault upon Guernica. One wonders how long this can continue without violent blowback in Europe, and, yes, even here in the US. Perhaps, this is what the British are experiencing today.

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