NATO Investigates Claims That U.S. Airstrike Killed Afghani Civilians

Airstrikes in the Helmund district in Afghanistan have left 18 civilians dead, according to the UN and local sources. On Sunday, the UN reported that “on 9 and 10 February, international military forces conducted airstrikes in Helmand’s Sangin district reportedly targeting anti-government elements. [The UN’s] initial inquiries suggest that the airstrikes killed at least 18 civilians, nearly all women and children.”

Hameed Gul from Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, said that nine of his family members in the village of Lakari in the Sangin district were killed by the airstrikes. “My elder brother and I traveled to the village to find out how our mother, brothers, and sister have been killed,” Mr. Gul said. “When we arrived, the villagers were digging them out of the debris.”

The Taliban contest or control 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, which has been the deadliest province for British and US troops over the past decade and is also blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency. According to Afghan officials, late last month militants tunneled under an army post and set off explosives causing heavy casualties. The UN has also reported that a Taliban suicide bomber also killed, at least, seven civilians in an attack in Lashkar Gah on Saturday.

While NATO officially ended its combat missions in Afghanistan in December 2014, the rising insurgency in the country has led them to deploy 200 soldiers earlier this year, with the Pentagon also pledging 300 marines. American aircraft and special forces have also provided combat support in the region. Although the troops are offering their services in the training and advising of the Afghani army, the escalation of fighting raises the possibility of them being drawn into it.

The UN report states that “international military forces” had conducted the strikes, which casts suspicion for responsibility on the US, as only their aircraft have been involved in recent coalition strikes. Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, a spokesman for the international coalition, confirmed that the US conducted approximately 30 airstrikes in Sangin last week, saying “We are investigating the allegations and working diligently to determine whether civilians were killed or injured as a result of US airstrikes conducted in support and defence of Afghan forces in or around Sangin.” The Afghan Defence Ministry declined to comment on the airstrike, but a government spokesman, Najeeb Danesh, said a delegation from the ministry was investigating.

Civilian casualties from conflict have increased in Afghanistan over the last few years. Inf act, 2016 saw the highest number of civilian casualties of the 15-year Afghan war, with the number of civilians killed and injured in airstrikes doubling that of the previous year, with foreign forces responsible for half. Nearly 1,000 children were killed in the Afghan conflict last year, a yearly rise of 24%.

Although the UN’s current report reiterates “the need for all parties to the conflict to strictly adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law to take all feasible measures to protect civilians from harm,” with fighting escalating and the risk of coalition forces being drawn further into insurgency fighting, there still remains a substantial risk of more civilian casualties in the near future.

Hamish Clark